Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Devil in the Technical Details

I have to confess that the open editing philosophy behind Wikipedia can sometimes keep it impressively up to date. Consider the beginning of its "La damnation de Faust" entry:

La damnation de Faust (English: The Damnation of Faust) is a work for orchestra, voices, and chorus written by Hector Berlioz (he called it a "légende dramatique").

Berlioz read Goethe's Faust Part One in 1828, in Gérard de Nerval's translation; "this marvelous book fascinated me from the first", he recalled in his Memoirs. "I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street." He was so impressed that a suite entitled "Eight Scenes from Faust" became his Opus 1 (1829), though he later recalled all the copies of it he could find. He returned to the material in 1845, to make a larger work, with some additional text by Almire Gandonnière to Berlioz's specifications, that he first called a "concert opera", and as it expanded, finally a "dramatic legend".

He worked on the score during his concert tour of 1845, adding his own text for "Nature immense, impénétrable et fière"— Faust's climactic invocation of all nature— and incorporating the Rákóczi March, which had been a thunderous success at a concert in Pest, Hungary, 15 February 1846.[1] Its first performance at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, 6 December 1846, did not meet with critical acclaim, perhaps due to its halfway status between opera and cantata; the public was apathetic, and two performances (and a cancelled third) rendered a financial setback for Berlioz: "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference", he remembered.[2]

The Damnation of Faust is performed regularly in concert halls, since its first successful complete performance in concert in Paris, in 1877; it is occasionally staged as an opera, for the first time in Opéra de Monte-Carlo on February 18, 1893, where it was produced by its director Raoul Gunsbourg, Jean de Reszke singing role of Faust. The Metropolitan Opera premiered it first in concert (February 2, 1896) and then on stage (The United States stage premiere on December 7, 1906). The Metropolitan Opera revived the production on November 7, 2008 directed by Robert Lepage, with computer-generated stage imagery that responds to the voices of the performers.[3]

The only thing missing from that last sentence was the Met's decision to include that revival in its Live in HD series, and that may only be because the HD broadcast took place today! I also call attention to that third footnote, which provides a link to the New York Times background article that discusses the technical details at great length and was definitely a factor in drawing me to today's broadcast. What this article did not say was that all of the computer-generated technology was an add-on to a staging that Lepage had already conceived. This came out when Thomas Hampson interviewed Susan Graham about her performance of Marguerite, and she talked about performing in the original incarnation of this production.

So is the result an opera production; or is it a tech-fest for those averse to the noise level of today's rock music? To invoke terminology I introduced earlier in the day, this is the sort of production that could well serve as a "tourist magnet," regardless of its virtues or vices. From a similar point of view, it could well attract a new generation of younger listeners to the Metropolitan Opera (or to an HD screening), including some (many?) with no idea of who Berlioz was (not to mention Johann Wolfgang Goethe). For those of us who are more serious about both opera and music, the approach brings a mix of virtues and vices; but my own feeling was that the vices are easily overshadowed by the virtues.

This is the second time I have seen this work staged. Several years ago it was performed in concert version by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit; and I was particularly impressed at how the singers were able to "deliver the message" with only a handful of postural and gestural cues. However, because I always believe that there is room for effectively imaginative staging, I have never been a purist about keeping this work in the concert hall. Lepage's approach was indisputably imaginative, and on the whole it was effective. By this I mean that he produced a conception of the work based on entirely believable characterizations of Faust (Marcello Giordani), Méphistophélès (John Relyea), and Marguerite (Graham). That believability has to include a conception of Méphistophélès as a supernatural force; and, as Goethe said explicitly in the "Prelude in the Theatre" for Faust Part One, that conception really requires a heavy dose of spectacle, pretty much as Aristotle conceived the nature of spectacle in his "Poetics." (Note that this Prelude involves a Stage Director in conversation with a Poet and a Comedian. It is the Comedian who speaks up for spectacle. In the production that I saw in New York back in the Eighties, the actor playing the Comedian later appeared in the role of Mephistopheles!) Lepage is as good a servant of Aristotelian spectacle as I have ever seen, making him a key virtue of this production.

However, Aristotle also cautions against too much spectacle; and there were times when I was not sure that Lepage was ignoring this advice to the disadvantage of us all. Nevertheless, I am not sure I can effectively evaluate his judgment on the basis of Barbara Willis Sweete's camera work. Lepage had clearly conceived of the entire stage as his canvas. This was not only important when the stage provided context for actions localized in a relatively small portion of the entire area. It was also important when Lepage used the full stage as a grid for many repetitions of images or actions. Sweete's decision to pan across these repetitions took away from the impact of their very number, threatening that impact with a sense of tedium. So, for all the past virtues of these HD transmissions, I have to conclude that this was one performance that probably benefits from the viewer being present in the hall itself, rather that being only "virtually" present.

If we give Lepage the benefit of the doubt for certain visual ideas that did not translate well to video, then only one performer was seriously disadvantaged. That was conductor James Levine. Berlioz was such a master of orchestral resources (at least the video let us see the four harps!) that any conductor who elicits a credible performance deserves to be watched; and this performance was many orders of magnitude better than credible. Berlioz not only commanded extremes from his orchestra but shifted between extremes like turning on a dime (sou?). Levine was on top of every twist and turn, summoning all the sounds of Hell itself from his pit and then abruptly withdrawing the sublimity of Marguerite's reception into Heaven. Of course, had I been watching Levine, I would have missed the "equal opportunity" Lepage gave to Hell and Heaven on stage; so I certainly cannot fault Sweete for keeping her camera eyes out of the orchestra pit! Thus, while video may not have done sufficient justice to the staging, this was a musical performance that I hope will be eventually made available as a commercial recording.

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