Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Going high-tech at the Met

What's the best chaser for the awesome experience that was the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway? A three-hour opera. No, really.

I can't say I was really looking forward to go out last night: I had had two hours of sleep in the previous 26 hours, a long day in the TONY trenches (thank you, accelerated Thanksgiving schedule!), and the prospect of parking my butt in a Met seat for an extended period of time was not all that alluring. I mean, normally it would be but what I really wanted was to go home, watch a couple of 30 Rock episodes on DVD and crash. But it was not to be, and I don't regret it for a second.

Robert Lepage's production of La Damnation de Faust was the first time Berlioz's piece had been fully staged at the Met since 1906. It was touted as a multimedia wonderland blah blah blah…but I was really afraid this was another case of the Met patting itself on the back for bravely going where theater has been for the past 30 years. But you know what? Lepage knocked my socks off.

This video preview gives a faint idea of the basic concept so I'll spare you the details. What I liked best is that this wasn't technical wizardry for its own sake: There was a real director with a real eye at the helm. The second half alone is one of the most striking things I've ever witnessed on stage. Of particular note: When the grid-like scaffold the action was taking place on morphed from something out of Tron into cast-iron into trees; when, a bit later, those trees shriveled up and died as Mephistophéles walked past them. And in Marguerite's big aria, Susan Graham was dwarfed by a gigantic video projection of herself (shot live), her head engulfed in flames and smoke. This all made Peter Sellars and Bill Viola's highly-touted Tristan Project —the last time a creative team really went full-on, large-scale multimedia on opera's ass here—look like an NYU student project.

Another highlight: Lepage's vision of Hell seamlessly blended the human (the Met's chorus, which had been superlative all evening, switched into an even higher gear then) and the oppressively mechanical. It may have been Hell, but I was in Heaven. (Oh, we saw that too, actually.)

As a funny sidenote, when the chorus of damned souls switched to Berlioz's "infernal language" to invoke the names of demons ("O mérikariu! O midara caraibo lakinda, merondor dinkorlitz, merondor! Satan! Belphégor! Astaroth! Méphisto!"), the man in front of me toggled through the various options offered by the Met titles, as if he thought his console had suddenly jumped from English to Ancient Sumerian.

The singers copped well with the demands placed on them by working on a multilevel scaffold. John Relyea's Mephistophélès pranced around in a red leather suit, preceded by his codpiece (which elicited titters from the audience upon its grand entrance) and Marcello Giordani's Faust was fine, though he didn't quite rouse me—unlike Susan Graham, a big reason the second half rocketed into the stratosphere. When she literally went up in smoke during "D'Amour, l'ardente flamme," the image was perhaps obvious since that's what she was singing about, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it was a theatrical vision for the ages and it'll remain seared in my retina.

No comments: