La Damnation de Faust, Berlioz

Two Productions: Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Metropolitan Opera

8th March, 2010; 26th October, 2009


The fantastic orchestral and choral music in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust must make it a tantalizing prospect for opera conductors looking to tackle a piece outside of the standard repertory. Directors, likewise, must see in Damnation—an oratorio, with a poetic narrative—something enticingly malleable, a work on which to leave their mark. How else to explain two major new mountings in the US during the past two years—at the Met by Robert LePage in 2008-9 and more recently at the Lyric Opera of Chicago by Stephen Langridge—of a work that is fundamentally flawed from a dramatic perspective and probably best left in the concert hall? My recent review of Attila at the Met came to a similar conclusion: that a (costly) staging of a work that doesn’t necessarily thrive on stage is a perplexing choice for any opera company nowadays.

I wasn’t in town for the opening run of LePage’s production for the Met in 2008, but the 2009 revival, which I saw in October, proved somewhat of a letdown in comparison with his best theater work. It was LePage’s first production for the Met, a transfer of an earlier production abroad, and, one hopes, part of the learning curve before LePage tackles the Ring Cycle there next fall. I admit to having extremely high hopes when I entered the show, based on my experience seeing several other, miraculous productions by Mr. LePage.

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Photos by: Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago; Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

LePage’s production featured some very interesting imagery, as his productions usually do, but was hampered by a Hollywood Squares-style grid on which the action took place; said grid, with its safety railings, functioned unintentionally like a cage, keeping the audience at a remove and thereby dulling the impact of the performances and of LePage’s much-discussed interactive video projections which, unobstructed, might have been more effective. Still, the best of LePage’s images, such as the instances of diving into “water,” made for moments of beautiful, technologically astounding theater.

The oratorio’s “story” was straightforward, even somewhat square, in LePage’s production, though the theatrical methods of storytelling were adventurous. LePage engaged an ensemble of dancers and acrobats to flesh out the stage action, in addition to the large chorus the work calls for. The ensemble danced, swung from cables, climbed and moved about the grid, often in musical unison and framed individually within single squares of the grid. Again, the visual impact of the choreography was muted by the relationship of the dancers to the grid and the audience. At times, the actors on stage affected, by way of motion sensors, the way projected images were animated on the screens within the grid. This impressive new technology famously crashed the Met’s backstage computer system several times during the rehearsal period and the first year’s run; it seemed fully functional by the time I saw the production in the second year.

Conductor James Conlon led a rousing, full-blooded musical performance of Berlioz’s score. The Met Orchestra, in music that gave them a lot of chance to shine, sounded typically extraordinary, and the large chorus made beautiful, powerful contributions as well. Ramon Vargas, as Faust, sang well enough in the demanding role, but never really made the piece his own. His voice was outsized by the other two leads, Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov as Marguerite and Méphistophélès, respectively. Borodina, though, was miscast; she has neither the warmth of tone to bring off the character of Marguerite nor, any more, the high notes. Abdrazakov was the most successful of the three Met leads, singing with round, exciting tone and displaying plenty of charisma.

Stephen Langridge’s production for Lyric Opera was more conceptually ambitious than LePage’s; ultimately, it failed to create a coherent, dramatically compelling show for different reasons. Langridge, like LePage, used an abundance of visual stimuli--an ensemble of dancers, projections, Dan Flavin-esque rectangular light boxes—but Langridge’s production never added up to more than a series of visual gestures and half-developed ideas.

Langridge’s set-up was intriguing; in ethos, it reminded me of Todd Haynes’ biopic about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, in the way it told this cobbled-together story through slightly surreal, repetitive tableaus. In this aspect, Langridge’s staging was much more apt for the opera’s poetic libretto, in which the narrative is rarely precise or clear. For example, in the opening choral scene, Mr. Langridge divided the chorus into a few archetypes, brilliantly costumed by George Souglides, so that the same story played out in slight variations again and again throughout the stage. This visual repetition was brought back in other scenes and might have been an extremely effective comment upon the role of fate in our lives and our tendency, as humans, to repeat our mistakes, if only Mr. Langridge had brought this very interesting idea to some dramatic fruition; instead, it was simply a visual trick. As the evening went on, the visual devices got more numerous and more tedious. The story, whatever amount there was to begin with, got lost amid a sea of design.

The singing in the Lyric production was often more interesting than in the Met’s. Paul Groves sang sensitively and with a clear, engaging tone. However, any and all notes above an A-flat were performed in head voice, something that seemed a necessity rather than a choice and, though committed, there was something less than genuine about his performance. Susan Graham, who also sang Marguerite for the opening season of LePage’s Met production, was stunning. Her aria “Le roi de Thulé” had gorgeous, lilting French phrasing, and round, delicious tone. I can imagine Langridge’s staging of Margeurite was more rewarding to perform as well, as it created much more of a flesh-and-blood character. John Relyea sang with a powerful, dark tone, but his performance lacked the sophistication and mastery of Abdrazakov’s.

Conductor Andrew Davis drew a very good performance from the chorus and orchestra of the Lyric. From my seat towards the front of the orchestra, the orchestra didn’t have the chance, acoustically, to make the piece everything it can be—which brings me back to the idea that perhaps this work does simply just function better on a concert stage.

Bottom line: Two ambitious productions, but no reason this work should enter the standard operatic repertory.


John Costello


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Production Credits

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: Stephen Langridge
Designer: George Souglides
Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Göbbel
Projections Designer: John Boesche
Chorus Master: Donald Nally
Choreographer: Philippe Giraudeau


Faust: Paul Groves
Méphistophélès: John Relyea
Brander: Christian Van Horn
Marguerite: Susan Graham


The Metropolitan Opera

Conductor:  James Levine
Director:  Robert Lepage
Associate Director:  Neilson Vignola
Set Designer:  Carl Fillion
Costume Designer:  Karin Erskine
Lighting Designer:  Sonoyo Nishikawa
Interactive Video Designer:  Holger Förterer
Image Designer:  Boris Firquet
Choreographer:  Johanne Madore, Alain Gauthier


Faust: Ramon Vargas
Méphistophélès: Ildar Abdrazakov
Brander: Patrick Carfizzi
Marguerite: Olga Borodina