By Hector Berlioz
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Robert Lepage
Faust: Marcello Giordani
Méphistophélès: John Relyea
Marguerite: Susan Graham
Not a bona fide opera, Berlioz’s “légende dramatique” has nevertheless been successfully staged a few times in the past, and this season the Met decided to take it up one notch by making it a truly interactive journey. Inspired by Goethe’s poem Faust, this work is not easily categorized, but it does give good drama while exploring the doomed fates of Faust and Marguerite, all supervised by the stop-at-nothing Méphistophélès. The music is both subtly and grandiosely beautiful, but because it was not composed in classical operatic form, its unusual and ambitious scope makes it quite a challenge to produce and a no less interesting experience to watch the end result.
The main selling point of this production is its multi-media component, and yesterday our eyes sure got as much to process as our ears. Some elements were a smart but not overly odd use of the space, such as the 24 cubicles layered over four levels, allowing for lovely dance sequences and scenes of relentless debauchery at the tavern. Others, on the other hand, were highly computerized and resulted occasionally in truly dazzling effects. Horses galloping at full speed to Berlioz's breathless score or trees elegantly dying one after the other as Méphistophélès was passing them across the stage were perfect examples of the exciting possibilities new technologies can bring to a centuries-old art form. Images of Faust eerily swirling in dormant water were still eerily swirling in our minds at intermission.
But new toys can also sometimes become too much of a good thing though, and the smoke coming out of Susan Graham's live close-up, backed up by more small fires projected behind her, was more likely to give the spectator the urge to grab the closest fire extinguisher than to convey burning passion. Her singing, however, was a stunning ode to untamable longing and obviously in no need of added effects. Sometimes less is indeed more. Her Marguerite was an abashedly sweet and innocent victim (although her close-ups made it harder to suspend disbelief as she definitely looked more, ahem, mature than her character was supposed to be) and her duo with Marcello Giordani, who was in fine form as Faust, was one of the highlights of the matinee. With a macho mustache à la Burt Reynolds and a feathered hat reminiscent of Robin Hood, John Relyea's red leather-clad Méphistophélès seemed more ready for a Village People revival than a 19th century opera, but all was forgotten as soon as he started singing and effortlessly projected all the perverse charisma his character required. And let's not forget the magnificent chorus, who did an amazing job in contributing to bringing the whole production to life.
This first interactive opera production of the Met can easily be deemed a success, and its small bits of high-tech self-indulgence can certainly be forgiven upon viewing the widely satisfying final result. Not only did most of these digital projections effectively express larger-than-life feelings and ideas, but they also provided fluid transitions between scenes in a work that does not always flow seamlessly. Although I can't imagine anything ever replacing the direct emotional connection between live artists and their audience, jazzing up the classics by mixing traditional musical and modern visual languages can obviously turn out to be an ultimately very rewarding adventure.