Monday, September 22, 2003

La Damnation de Crappy Eurotrash Stagecraft

I went to see La Damnation de Faust last night. Berlioz is an unconventional composer; for the most part, his operas do not fit the typical mold of a Romantic opera, and La Damnation de Faust is no different. Perhaps some of this strangeness is what made the artistic staff of the Los Angeles Opera think that La Damnation de Faust would be good fodder for director Achim Freyer, but unfortunately, they were mistaken. I was expecting to like the performance, because I enjoy Berlioz’s work, and because I think Samuel Ramey, who played Mephistopheles, is the greatest bass of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. (Lame joke: When is Sam Ramey not playing Mephistopheles? Answer: When he’s playing Mefistofele! Yuck yuck. Sorry, I’m an idiot.) I was even hoping against hope that I'd like the production even after I had found out that Achim Freyer was the director. I had seen Freyer’s “Invasion of the Mud People” staging of Bach’s Mass in B Minor last season, and had found it indigestible and nonsensical. Freyer actually made me almost dislike Bach, which is quite a feat. So, again unfortunately, in having high expectations for the evening, I was mistaken.

Last night’s production was—predictably—indigestible, undecipherable, absurd (intentionally and unintentionally), and incredibly lame. Freyer had some ideas, such as when Mephistopheles strips off Faust’s white trenchcoat and his black clothes all at once, revealing a demon skin underneath (Faust then crawled into a pit in the stage with the rest of the demons), that could have been good if they had just been a little more subtle. As it was, everything was just over-the-top and ridiculous. The Hungarian March in the prologue had an inappropriately comical mock battle between goofily dancing guys with huge fake ears and grinning skull faces. It created an effect not unlike a Peanuts on Ice show at the Knotts Berry Farm of the Damned. It kind of reminded me of Expressionist art inspired by WWI, only, you know, stupid. Then, in the first act, the entire chorus and all the supernumeraries wore these huge, grotesque, papier-maché heads, so it looked like the stage was completely populated by bobbleheads. The stupid heads reminded me of Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels, only, you know, retarded. Freyer never did anything with the visual references he tried so hard to evoke. Faust was then tormented by the Evil Black Standard Poodle of Death. Who knows what that was supposed to represent? (I’m just guessing when I say “Death”.) Couldn’t they have chosen a more evil dog than a Standard Poodle? Barkley from Sesame Street maybe? And why was one of the sylphs dressed like a pimp version of the white spy from Spy vs. Spy? What good is creating such a complex, allusive visual language if it’s going to be lost on the audience? Freyer had a bit of explanation for some of his staging effects in the program notes, but even that made little sense. All I could glean from the essay was that Freyer considers the nose to be the captain of the face or something. Not only were Freyer’s antics visually and mentally disruptive, they also interfered with the orchestral parts of the opera, as well as some of the arias. The Dance of the Evil Fire Sprites (not the name Berlioz intended, but that’s what Freyer boiled it down to) was kind of Mummenschanz-y, kind of Pink-Floyd-laser-show-y, kind of Disney’s-Main-Street-Electrical-Parade-y, and enough already(-y). The dancers whose costumes lit up were neat—for about a minute.

Paul Groves as Faust was OK vocally. He had some trouble with high notes and seemed strained sometimes. During the duet “Ange adorée”, he couldn’t seem to get into any kind of synch with Denyce Graves, and his “Nature immense” got a loud “Bravo”, but was kind of weak and pinched compared to Roberto Alagna’s (which isn’t a fair comparison, since Alagna’s was in the studio). Groves really seemed to throw himself into the crappy production though, so kudos to him, I guess, for always keeping a straight face, even when being chased around by a man dressed as a Standard Poodle (of Death).

I felt sorry for Denyce Graves. She didn’t get to sing until about mid-way through, and she had to wear these horrible braids that were at least twelve feet long. She didn’t really have much of a chance to do any acting, because she seemed too worried about maneuvering the braids around. (One of my major gripes with Freyer is that, in this already pretty static piece, his stupid costume and staging ideas further hampered the singers’ acting.) Her voice didn’t seem to be in the best shape either. Her lows were fine, but the high parts got kind of shrill and shrieky.

Sam Ramey got the best ovations of the night. I think it’s like a rule now, because every time I’ve seen him, he’s gotten the best ovations. That he’s really, really good could have something to do with it though. He too was hampered by the staging. Usually when Ramey is the Devil, he seems to have a great time, frolicking around the stage, messing with barmaids, and just being all-around campily evil. This Mephisto was just kind of blah. His voice sounded smaller than usual, but I think that was the set, because everyone was quieter (especially the people with the fake heads). I also felt gypped because his costume kept me from admiring his (albeit aged) hotness. His coat had tails that covered his butt; he had a stupid pointy wig that covered up his trademark hair; his face was painted. His costume was kind of like a combination of a New Jersey Devils fan, Wolverine from the X-Men, David Bowie circa Earthling, and a recipient of Carson Kressley’s fashion advice (Carson, you’re very funny, but fancy pants just do not go with sports jerseys and tennis shoes). Most annoyingly, during the wicked little serenade “Devant la maison”, Freyer had a chorus of pig (or bunny?)-headed nuns clicking flashlights on and off very audibly over Ramey’s singing.

So I didn’t like it very much. It seemed like a mishmash of artistic and theatrical references. After the “Rat Song”, there was a kind of tableau vivant of DaVinci’s Last Supper. There were the obvious Ensor influences. At one point, Faust cradled an armful of red tape and moved across the stage very much like Nijinsky in L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune. But Freyer seems kind of conflicted with what direction he wants to go in. Most of the time, he’s impenetrably symbolic, but sometimes he’s maddeningly literal, like when Mephisto said that the death knell was sounding, and a big bell descended from the ceiling, or when the trumpets of judgment (or something) were playing, and a chorus of huge, cardboard trumpet bells came down from the rafters (which was very Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The attempts at subversiveness were out of place; the Faust legend is quite a subversive story as it is, and we don't need nuns with pig heads to tell us that. But I’ve heard that Freyer’s a nice guy, so I guess he has that going for him. Good for him.

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