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Subject: hot damn-nation (long)
From: Leslie Barcza <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Leslie Barcza <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 22 Nov 2008 21:24:34 -0500
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There's a lot in Lepage's DdF to like (some already acknowledged in earlier
reviews); there's also a great deal that frustrates me to the point of
raising my blood pressure.  While it's true that I marked November 22nd on
my calendar as soon as I saw what was scheduled, this is no fan letter to
Lepage.  I watched with some trepidation, given my impossibly high hopes,
the negatives we had heard about and yes, my frustration in watching a live
spectacle on a glorified TV broadcast.  

First, let's talk about the mise-en-scene.  Lepage is spoken of in the same
"auteur" language one finds in bad film criticism, where everything is
credited (or blamed) on the boss.  Just as Alfred Hitchcock seems to get
credit for everything in his films, ignoring collaborators such as Bernard
Herrmann, so too with Lepage's work.  Whether the ideas came from Lepage,
from Carl Fillion (set designer), one of the choreographers (Johanne Madore
or Alain Gauthier), one of the video designers (Holger Foerterer or Boris
Firquet), OR one of the key influences, such as Robert Wilson or Sankai Juku
isn't really the point.  The question is, when you add the parts together,
what do you get?  

There are three predominant themes (if you'll excuse the oversimplification)
in the text that inform and inspire the production in divergent ways;
Lepage's team appears far more inspired by some aspects than others.  

First lets talk about damnation-salvation.    Am I the only one who is
tearing his hair in frustration..? for most of theatre history such things
as the Dutchman and Senta rising into heaven, the Rhine overflowing its
banks etc. were beyond the capabilities of theatre technology. Now that
we've got the technology, we get really nasty devils and ghosts, but
salvation seems to bore directors & designers, given their uninspired
responses.  While my ears loved the music at the end, my eyes felt a huge
let-down.  

And my favourite musical moment in the entire work --when the chorus sings
"Christ vient de resusciter"--gets an agnostic treatment, possibly a
reflection of Lepage's own faith (or lack thereof).  As the double chorus
sings soaring melodic lines announcing that Christ is risen, we get five
living Christs writhing on the cross on the stage.  While it's a bit of a
tour de force to put the bodies there, it's a perverse denial of the music
and the text.  From a purely dramaturgical point of view, the text has Faust
converted, saved from despair by the affirmation of resurrection.  And a
split-second later, POOF we get the first appearance of Méphistophélès, when
Berlioz (through the mouth of his Méphistophélès) mocks the piety of Faust.
 It's as though Lepage couldn't resist taking his own swipe at Christianity,
portraying it as a font of guilt and suffering, not hope and redemption.  

Second, there's love and romance.  In the matter of man with woman, some of
the most haunting visual moments concern this subject.  We get dancers
climbing walls on strings, sculptural compositions of bodies as
unforgettable as anything Lepage has ever created.  We see the lovers dream
of the lover they are to meet in a surreal underwater ballet.  I was
reminded of a press conference I was at many years ago where Domenick
Argento argued that the thing we seek in live theatre is "magic", a word so
overused that it has almost lost its meaning. While we will always see
special effects to make you believe a man can fly, etc. on film, it's
something else again to see magic in live theatre.  Lepage's calling in
Vegas was arguably "magician", and is no slouch.  This is genuine magic and
in combination with Berlioz makes time stand still several times.  Clearly
romance (or sex?) matters to Lepage.   

Third, --and this is where those curious about the upcoming Ring should take
heart --there's nature, a smorgasbord of assorted eye-candy.  Nature
inspires Lepage (whether to create or challenge his collaborative team),
perhaps more than anything else.  Air... water...fire....wind...
Animals...These simple and concrete touchstones of life populate his stage
(birds blown by stormy winds, a boat apparently floating in water, flames
large and small, horses galloping...).  One should also take heart that in
almost every case Lepage is inspired by a metaphor or word from the actual
text, making his mise-en-scene closely linked to the work, rather than off
on a tangent.  It bodes well for the Ring.

Fillion's set is a remarkable construct, configured in several ways
throughout.  I understand the frustration some felt, in its curtailment of
the big Met stage, but perhaps it's more important to recognize what this
set is doing, rather than lamenting what it doesn't do.  How often can you
say you've seen something really new? This set forces us to look at the
singers, dancers, and the entire work in several different ways.  

=> we get Faust floating in the virtual world of his reading, on a library
ladder that melts into the larger world of his thoughts when the chorus
begin to sing around him (rather than offstage), as if they are truly in his
head
=> we get profiles: people walking back and forth like cut-outs. This is
particularly interesting when for the second time, we see Faust reading,
this time in the company of a stage full of readers, each in their own
compartment (in the moments before he attempts to take his own life).
=> a more human scale is sometimes forced, as in the tavern scene, chorus
forced into little booths (just like my neighbourhood pub, minus the
microbrews); it defused the typical bad moments of chorus members mugging
and posing
=> we see a lot of aerial work, both on ladders and strings
=> and while there are enormous amounts of video and effects, I did not
think the soloists were ever upstaged

Musically? Levine and the orchestra make Berlioz's score sound delicate, an
incredible feat considering how many times Berlioz becomes an excuse for
bombast for its own sake in the hands of other conductors. The Rakoczy March
sounded light-footed rather than the usual stomp stomp stomp you find on
recordings. While Marcello Giordani does not bring the most ideal diction,
perhaps the bottom line is the difficult writing, the torturous singing
given to Faust. Giordani sang an amazing C-sharp (once full-throated, a
second time falsetto), and was a musical force.  Susan Graham's Marguerite
is a complete portrayal (well sung, compelling acted), although as far as I
can tell the role is not as imposing an undertaking as Faust.  John Relyea's
Méphistophélès is a solid portrayal from a young man early in his career,
certainly not a disappointment.  While his voice was up to the task, I yearn
for an added flamboyance in the role, someone whose charismatic voice and
style command the stage.

Next week we get to hear it on a radio broadcast.

  Leslie Barcza in Toronto       [log in to unmask]

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