Cher public, who else but La Cieca brings you such in-depth arts coverage that you get not one but two reports from spies at the dress rehearsal of the Met’s new La Damnation de Faust ? After the jump, eyewitness accounts of the Lepagerie from Our Own Gualtier Maldè and Sanford. 

Sanford filed first:

I adore Berlioz but Damnation Of Faust was never intended by the composer to be an opera. Huge stretches of music are choral or orchestral, and while gorgeous, make for some pretty static stage pictures. Robert Lepage’ solution is to every little meaning a movement all its own. The set is a grid of steel girders that create 4 levels of catwalks running from wing to wing. The front of each opening in the grid has a retractable scrim on which projections are displayed. The depth of the catwalks is about 10 feet from back to front and the back of each grid opening is covered in semi-transparent mirrors. When projections or lights are behind them you can see through, but when light hits them from the front, they are reflective.

The grid served as Faust’s library, ramparts, Marguerite’s house, etc. Great use is made of the 4 levels as well as the front scrims and the rear mirrors. The grid also allows people to enter not only from the wings on all four levels, but also from the stage floor (which is raised) and from the top of the proscenium. In addition to the soloists, chorus, and dancers, there are Circe de Soleilish acrobats.

Some of the production is simply spectacular. However, some is so silly that there were titters of laughter from the audience. ANd there is a lot of Christian symbolism. Why only have one Christ on the cross when 5 will do? They were all hanging from the girders. Why not have male acrobats be the devil’s minions crawling up and down the grid, and interacting with the sylphs? Why not have same acrobats as soldiers marching off to war by walking up the face of the grid perpendicular to the floor? When Marguerite sings “D’amour l’ardente flamme,” why not project not only the flames of hell on the scrim but a closeup of Susan Graham? And all of the technical aspects didn’t really hide the fact that it isn’t an opera.

As for the music: the orchestra played Berlioz as well as any orchestra playing today, and Maestro Levine conducted an exciting account of the score. The chorus is absolutely stunning. David Palumbo has inspired them to glory.

John Relyea has an attractive voice, but didn’t (to me) come off as especially menacing. If anything, he’s a bit of a lummox physically. And his red pleather outfit didn’t flatter him at all.

Marcello Giordani his all of the notes, and the role goes quite high, but above about an A, the voice sounded pinched and the extreme top was pretty painful. I kept wishing that I was hearing someone more gifted in French music, because he’s a very Italianate singer. It wasn’t lyrical enough.

Susan Graham was superb. She looked beautiful, especially in her red velvet robe for “D’amour,” and sounded fabulous. The voice is even throughout, her French is good (though I would have liked more consinants), and she has a real flair for French music. “D’amour” was gorgeous, as was “Roi de Thule.”

The singers got cheered, but the reception for the production itself remains to be seen.

And now the reaction from Gualtier:

La Damnation de Faust is a strange creation neither fish nor fowl. Meant for and usually heard in the concert hall, it has strange non-linear dramaturgy that skips over assorted episodes from Goethes epic poem in an episodic often hallucinatory fashion. (Wasn’t Berlioz not averse to a little opium at times?) The first act is a series of tableaux centering on Faust and his world while the later acts bring in the figure of Mephistopheles and Marguerite with the much-needed dramatic interaction of conventional opera.

A really imaginative production will somehow manage to pull the mix of static cantata and Romantic drama together. The Met in its first attempt at staging this oddity since 1906 turned to Canadian wunderkind Robert Lepage. Lepage has produced beautiful, highly imagistic but musically and dramatically respectful productions at BAM including Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The Damnation of Faust scheduled to open later this week premiered in a less elaborate form in Paris and subsequently traveled to Japan. Since Lepage is scheduled the Met’s newest Ring cycle in the 2010-11 season, I was anxious to get an early peek at his Met debut production.

The production is definitely the star of the show. Peter Gelb and his publicity materials have stressed that this is a cutting edge, high-tech, state of the art production. However, though the technology is new, Lepage’s dramatic approach is illustrative and often rather conventional though his visual eye is imaginative. The techniques he uses are high tech but their artistic application goes back forty or more years.

The stage consists of a three tiered grid of catwalks about eight feet deep crossing the entire front stage. In back of this framework is a mylar screen where high resolution images are screened taking us from sky, to sea down to the flames of Hell itself. Images can also be screened on the walls of the catwalk and on retractable scrims in front with a multitude of configurations. Supers and dancers are flown on wires up and down the catwalk in Cirque de Soleil fashion (M. Lepage has also directed shows for them as well).

Sound familiar? Well, who did I spot at intermission but octagenarian Frank Corsaro well-remembered for his 1970’s New York City Opera productions of Die Tote Stadt and The Makropoulos Affair that mixed live performers with projections and film. I jokingly asked him “Gee, Mr. Corsaro, this use of projections looks familiar…did I see this at City Opera sometime?” He chuckled.

Does this mean that this is a tired, unimaginative affair? Derivative garbage? Zeffirelli in a shiny new electronic package? No. Lepage has a fine eye for evocative imagery and is sensitive to the music. Often he is too literal. In “D’Amour, l’ardente flamme” flames are projected behind Susan Graham, later in the aria we are treated to her image blown up twenty feet high singing behind her. Hardly Peter Sellars or Harry Kupfer type deconstruction going on here. And do we really need that all the time?

However, the visual image is gorgeous and the singer and the music is highlighted rather than competed with or worked against by the staging. Lepage stressed that the non-linear dramaturgy suggested a cinematic approach. The stage becomes a kaleidoscope of shifting imagery with the performers placed very much in the forefront at all times. The blocking of the soloists and their characterizations are rather conventional but the stage space limits the dancing and forces the chorus to perform in oratorio fashion. This presentation however is not inappropriate to the structure and format of the work. And the visual surprises keep on coming and I will not spoil any more for you.

This cast, though it doesn’t surpass certain recent paragons like Van Dam, Ramey, Crespin, Norman and others is very fine. Marcello Giordani displayed his expected tonal unevenness but an unexpected sensitivity to the French language and style. He did not bray or belt out his high notes but used a stylish voix mixte and his pronunciation was more than respectable though an italianate stress on final syllables did pop up occasionally. The raspy dryness that can afflict his middle and lower registers is less troublesome in French music and brought an appropriate “sec” quality to the tone.

John Relyea’s medium-size cantante bass-baritone is a better match for French opera than for the heavyweight Verdi and Wagner he has been trying out lately. His voice which has sounded troublesomely tired, raspy and hollow had more juice and rich legato flow than he displayed in Lucia, Macbeth and I puritani in recent seasons. Dressed in a red leather jerkin ensemble with a feathered cap, he looked like Pol Plancon or Edouard de Reszke stepping out from the pages of the Victor Book of the Opera. His debonair, witty portrayal reminded me of the Samuel Ramey of twenty or more years ago (the voice not as impressive) and he held the stage with charisma.

Susan Graham is a sensitive interpreter of French music and has lately sung quite a bit of Berlioz. Her Marguerite was a velvety-voiced, distinguished portrayal with strong musical and linguistic virtues. Patrick Carfizzi as Wagner was vivid in his “Chanson du Rat”.

That leaves us with a revivified Met chorus of Donald Palumbo and the always superb Met orchestra under James Levine. Levine was singing and making grunting noises in the pit in full Toscanini fashion urging the players on to more incisive dramatic phrasing while giving musical notes to assistant conductor Derrick Inouye whenever a free moment allowed him. Levine is an old hand at this score having conducted the Met forces in it in concert format at Carnegie Hall and on tour.

For those with a Tommasini-like eye for “strapping” male performers – the flying supers were quite buff and often shirtless and the male chorus ended up topless in Hell. Keep your binoculars ready in the final scene for your favorite chorus boy – they come in all ages, sizes and shapes.

I will leave the final word to Tommy Tune, spotted on the Grand Tier during intermission. He thought it was an absolutely beautiful production. The majority of the audience agreed with him. I thought it was old wine in new bottles but I liked the vintage and thought the presentation was exquisite. And Berlioz always has musical surprises that astound you with their modernity considering that he was composing closer to the time of Beethoven than Wagner or Richard Strauss.