Photo by robert millard
Everything you could hope to encounter in an evening of truly enlightened musical drama — superb music splendidly comprehended, a dramatic concept original yet honorable, a stage design to stimulate the eye — is there for your delectation in the Los Angeles Opera’s La Damnation de Faust, which began the company’s 18th season last week and lingers through September 28. Any persistent doubts concerning this offering’s value — based, perhaps, on the awareness that Faust, an exemplar of Hector Berlioz’s creative imagination at its most refulgent, was first planned as a concert piece and not an opera at all — should be dispelled forthwith. Whatever its category, this is marvelous musical theater, by Berlioz and by the enlightened spirits who have brought his work to life on our local stage.
From the theatrical imagination of Achim Freyer, who conceived, designed and directed, I expected no less. Although I found evidence of misadventure in his last work here — a visual production, arguably redundant, of Bach’s B-minor Mass — there is a level of intelligence in his stage work that sets him apart from, and above, most of his European colleagues. (The one available DVD of his work is his version of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, and it’s a knockout.) You have only to compare the inventive level in this new Faust, its high-flying fantasy still maintaining an honest awareness of the incendiary collaboration of Goethe and Berlioz, with the willful Eurotrash of Thomas Langhoff’s production of the same work visited upon a hapless San Francisco Opera audience last June. On that sorry evening, the Sylphides sported whips and thongs, Méphistophélès a baseball cap; some of the most beautiful music — the Will-o’-the-Wisps’ minuet, for example — was omitted entirely.
Achim Freyer’s Wisps dance deliciously on a blacked-out stage, their costumes edged in Christmas-tree lights; his Sylphides are puffs of airborne whiteness that exactly echo the flecks of woodwind tone in Berlioz’s magical orchestration. Freyer’s demons chant their demonic nonsense syllables through gigantic trumpets overhead; his angelic choir is a delightful kiddie chorus, their heads barely protruding up from hellish depths. His Méphisto wears a large number “6,” the familiar icon of diablerie. Some among us seemed puzzled by the presence onstage of a cavorting black poodle. Read your Goethe, folks; this is the very “Pudel” (but, of course, French this time) that follows Faust to his home and there morphs into his satanic companion.
The cross-references are wondrously rich. If the stage biz echoes the sound of the Berlioz orchestra, the looks of the production also evoke the aura of Dr. Faust’s own universe: a Brueghel world (or Bosch, perhaps?) of grotesque, larger-than-life masks and raucous folk dancing; of oversize toy soldiers acting out their Hungarian marches, and boozy students pouring out of some medieval Animal House. In a program note, Freyer takes some pains to link the geometry of his stage pictures to the spirit of the play: the vertical lines that connect heaven and earth, the horizontals to suggest movement and time. More to the point, it seems to me, are the connections Freyer’s stage pictures suggest to the expanse of Berlioz’s own musical genius, and the interaction of that ardent spirit with the dark flames of Goethe’s all-knowing text. We live in an age when wiseass operatic producers delight in transplanting familiar repertory pieces into uncharted territory — ah, there, Peter Sellars, with your Figaro in the Trump Tower! This Faust of Achim Freyer — the final creation of his lifetime, according to his statement made here last week — is something quite different: an intensely thought-out examination and expansion of the work’s fiery genius as rekindled from within.
Kent Nagano’s orchestra frames these wonders with colors richly applied. (It may be true that a Berlioz sound spectrum loses some of its flicker when performed in an orchestra pit rather than on a stage; this is a redesign matter that the Los Angeles Opera could profitably address in its new role as sole possessor of the premises.) The pacing is sure, and the complexities in the ensemble writing — even in the famous fugue, which Berlioz himself described as “la bestialité dans toute sa candeur” — are kept in nice balance. Some of Berlioz’s stratospheric writing constitutes cruelty to innocent tenors, but Paul Groves manages most of the challenges with commendable — if not supreme — marksmanship. The Méphistophélès is, of course, Samuel Ramey; his certificate of ownership of that role (in its many operatic manifestations) is beginning to fray, but the style is still there. On opening night, however, Denyce Graves hit rather a depressing number of misdirected notes for a singer this early in her career. Perhaps the need to cope with hair braids the width of the Pavilion stage disconcerted her somewhat. I know they would me.
Minor objections aside, this wonderfully brainy production needs to stand as a landmark, a glowing assertion of the power and the glory of contemporary operatic thinking. The visual magic in Freyer’s conception is immediately attractive; this is a night of operatic enchantment that can beguile on any level. But there is more here: an investment of creative energy in a work not at all familiar, itself drenched in arrogance and bravado. In his two productions here, both this marvelous Faust and the Bach of two seasons ago (which was at least an interesting failure), Freyer and his cohorts have offered Los Angeles a demonstration of opera-making strong, distinctive and true.
Landmarks do, however, crumble at times; I write these paeans the morning after the dress rehearsal of the L.A. Opera’s “other” season’s opener, Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra. That experience sent me to my thesaurus to locate new synonyms for “inept.” Stay tuned.