The Devil Is in the Details

Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

With all the mergers reshaping our society, the marriage of opera and movies may seem like a secondary kind of fusion, but it may become permanent and profound. With its live broadcasts, the Met has a new toehold in the multiplex; now, Robert Lepage’s multimedia production of Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust has resoundingly imported cinematic imagination into the opera house. It’s not just that he uses projections, which for years have served as cut-rate sets, or that he’s fitted out his vision with the latest in high-def luminosity. It’s that Lepage deploys projected light as a major character, fulfilling in opera the role that music can play in film.

Not even the composer thought La Damnation de Faust really belonged in a theater. It amounts to a collection of episodes that seem to take place mostly in the protagonist’s overheated mind. With fevered lyricism and hallucinatory orchestral colors, Berlioz transforms the story into a disjointed dream. Faust sings paeans to nature, but what he adores is not so much an actual slice of creation as a landscape fabricated in the brain. Marguerite is his fantasy woman, erotic yet pure, strong but in need of rescue. And Mephistopheles is a hologram of Faust’s seductive sense of guilt.

Lepage, the creator of Cirque du Soleil’s who will direct the Met’s next Ring cycle, uses the flicker and dissolve of film to free Berlioz’s romantic psychodrama from reality’s constraints. He’s plunked down sturdy gridlike scaffolding, pushed it toward the proscenium, and sealed the back off with a mirror, nearly flattening the Met’s huge stage into a neutral, two-dimensional screen. Video turns this Erector set into a fluid panorama of flaming skies and vertical fields of grass, with each blade magnified to Wonderland proportions. I thought my ability to marvel at digital magic had vanished long ago in a Hollywood blitz of morphing monsters, but video designer Holger Förterer and image designer Boris Firquet have made these projections expressive. As flesh-and-blood soldiers suspended on cables march up the wall of virtual grass, each footstep causes the meadow to ripple. Later, a blast of light turns the structure’s columns into tree trunks, which respond to Mephistopheles’s fingers by shedding their leaves and seizing up into wintry gnarls.

Lepage restrains his wizardry enough to keep it from overwhelming the drama or the music, but with his suspension of gravity and the ability to reshape light by touch, he, too, invokes the ability of art’s power to displace natural law. The opera is about the allure of competing with God. To get another crack at youth, and to replenish his capacities for love and inspiration, Goethe’s Faust negotiates with destiny. Berlioz’s score translates that wildness into music that fashions its own harmonic logic.

Of all the musical forces arrayed to lift this score from concert curio to bona fide opera, Donald Palumbo’s ensemble of demons, soldiers, and carousing students provides the greatest thrust. The Met’s chorus can be reason enough to mount certain operas, and this is one of them. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the rest of the performers seemed intent on tethering the music to the fleshly realm. Under James Levine, the orchestra produced Berlioz’s deep-plum palette, but at the cost of lumbering tempos, upholstered textures, and a thick varnish over the sound. Marcello Giordani sings the strange title role with a traditional attempt at loveliness, as if Faust were a stolid warrior hero instead of a frenzied soul. Susan Graham boasts a gorgeous, late-harvest mezzo-soprano—she must have Berlioz pumping through her veins, but she is too robustly, muscularly American to be believable as the vaporous distant lover. And with his impressive bass-baritone bark, John Relyea embodies the devil as bully rather than persuader, a tough-demon stance undermined by an outfit of crimson vinyl and feathered cap. If these singers had been tromping around a decorated stage, the evening would have felt lengthy. They all owe Lepage some thanks for his deft layering of animated light.

La Damnation de Faust
Hector Berlioz.
The Metropolitan Opera.Through December 4.

The Devil Is in the Details