The past few hours have just been a fantasy travel through time and place thanks to Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Originally composed as a concert piece, this légende dramatique consists of twenty loosely connected scenes that Berlioz himself thought could not be successfully fused together on stage due to the limited production techniques of the time. In fact, during his lifetime it was only produced as an opera once (in 1846), and due to complete neglect by the Parisian musical world, once was it. Faust’s great popularity did not begin until after the composer had died. At the MET it had only been staged once, in 1906. It then fell out of the repertoire until a concert performance in 1996 by James Levine and now the current production, which was developed last year. It is a shame that such beautiful music has been neglected for all these years, but thank God for a lack of established performance standards because for once the director has the freedom to start from scratch without being hounded.
Large sections of this opera are choral and others are purely orchestral. This does not make them any less brilliant than the soloist sections, but it does take the work of a creative director to keep the audience hooked. After all, so much of opera is visual. Robert Lepage certainly pulled it off with his creative use of three-dimensional video projections, dancers, chorus, and his interplay between live and projected people. One of the most beautiful moments is when live ballet dancers leap into video-screened water and automatically turn into 3D video projections. (This reminds me of actors intermingling with animation in Roger Rabbit, except this is all live.) One by one they leap and toss around under water to the accompaniment of only a few wind instruments. One of the beauties of Berlioz is that he knew when to be grand and forceful in his music but he also knew when to turn intimate and float the melody between only a few instruments, giving the effect of more approachable chamber music.
I do believe the magic of this evening was due in large part to the conductor James Conlon. Not only did he hold the singers and orchestra together almost seamlessly, he brought out all the different instrumental colors from this monstrous orchestra through such a detailed and invigorating reading. Ramón Vargas as Faust was intensely emotional, powering through from the very beginning. Ildar Abdrazakov as Méphistophélès was especially conniving as he pulled Faust deeper into hell through great acting and a fully engaged bass voice. Olga Borodina gave us a dark/full toned, and especially lonely Marguerite. Through the course of her aria “D’amor l’ardente flamme”, a slowly burning projection of her live image withers away to nothing while she awaits the return of her love, Faust. Simply beautiful.
Berlioz is considered to have been musically ahead of his time. His compositions are fusions of contemporary musical thought from all over Europe. Not one for impressing the Parisian musical masses (which included the leading composer Cherubini), he thought Rossini was mere surface-layer music, and he refused to adhere to French musical tradition. He drew on a plethora of European musical forms and greatly expanded the size of the orchestra. He published a Treatise on Orchestration, which is part of any modern composer’s study. Rarely able to survive on his compositions alone, he earned a living by writing weekly critiques and essays for the local Journal des Debats, and was part of the broader European music intelligencia. He composed five operas: a grand opera, an opera semi-seria, an opéra comique, a ballad opera, and a medieval drama. Faust was not considered one of these. It was labeled as a concert opera, and like many of his other works was never fully enjoyed during his lifetime. Berlioz died thinking it was the greatest failure of his life. As with other true masterpieces, one generation’s failure can be another’s success. It is now over 150 years since its composition, and with the help of modern technology and first class musicians, the masses are finally enjoying it.