Sunday, November 09, 2008

Digital Damnation - Metropolitan Opera / November 7, 2008

Sam Shirakawa attended the Opening Night of the Met's new production of La Damnation de Faust. Here is his squib:

If you were sitting in the uppermost tier (Balcony/Family Circle) of the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night, you could both see and hear the much vaunted computer-driven settings that are flashed onto the stage in the new production of Berlioz' Le Damnation de Faust -- the composer's discursive take on Goethe's epic.

See AND hear?

The whirring motors driving/cooling the projectors in the booth protruding from the ceiling were so loud, that you were hard put to hear anything from the stage or pit registering below mezzo-forte--which was often.

The complexities of Robert Lepage's pretty and pretty interactive production are outlined in Daniel Wakin's New York Times article, so I won't rehash them here.


The mammoth five-level grid that Lepage imposes on the proscenium is so shallow that the stage becomes a giant computer screen on which singers and dancers move up, down and across, but never to and fro. It's all in your face, oddly two-dimensional, and somehow heartless. You get some sense of depth from the reflector scrims at the rear of the grid, but they also mirror (irritatingly, I might add) the lights on the music stands in the orchestra pit, as well as James Levine sawing away on the podium.

So shallow a stage space, however, turned out to be a boon for the singers trying to project over the augmented orchestra and the droning projector motors, lest we forget that opera is primarily about singing. The title role is a killer, but Marcello Giordano seemed to have no problems scaling its heights on Friday night. John Relyea cut an imposing figure as Mephistopheles and cut through dense orchestral thickets without effort. Susan Graham may be listed on the roster as a mezzo-soprano, but her as-usual flawless portrayal of Marguerite smacked more of Schwarzkopf than of Suzanne Danco. (I can't say anything about her rendition of " D'Amour l'ardente flamme" because she was no match for the projector motors going full tilt.) The chorus--also augmented--seemed muffled throughout the performance, especially in the penultimate pandemonium, where literally all hell breaks loose.

It's easy to take James Levine for granted, because he almost always makes everything work. Berlioz more often than not requires a traffic cop on the podium rather than a conductor, and Levine steered the orchestra, chorus and cast through choppy straits with his customary elan.

For all the high falutin' digital decor in this production, poor Susan Graham sicut Marguerite had to ascend to Heaven the old-fashioned analogue way -- schlepping step by step up a frail ladder into the flies. But maybe that's LaPage's ultimate point: Paradise awaits at the top of a five-story walk-up.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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