The Metropolitan Opera's Movie-Theater Simulcast of 'Damnation de Faust'

Robert Lepage's circuslike sensibility didn't always translate in a Met simulcast.
Robert Lepage's circuslike sensibility didn't always translate in a Met simulcast. (By Ken Howard -- Metropolitan Opera)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

A boat moves under a bridge, across the rippling waters of a lake, poled by a singing devil who abruptly capsizes the vessel and sends his passenger down in a stream of bubbles, into a blue-lit underwater ballet.

Is it film? Is it theater? Well, both. Robert Lepage's staging of Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust" opened at the Metropolitan Opera House on Nov. 7. But like all new Met productions, it also was slated for live movie-theater simulcast; it aired Nov. 22. Seeing the same production live in the house and on screen (in the District, at Mazza Gallerie) is certainly a way to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a genre -- opera on screen -- that some are heralding as a possible salvation of the art form.

Ultimately, however, through Lepage's elaborate visual incrustations and the quick-cut camera shots that film directors appear to think a necessary concession to the supposedly short attention spans of movie audiences, the simulcasts -- fun as they are -- remain only the next best thing to being there.

Whatever you call it, the Lepage "Damnation" is certainly spectacle. The 50-year-old Canadian director has been doing avant-garde theater work for years, and staged the world premiere of Lorin Maazel's opera "1984." But his chief identifier these days has been the Cirque du Soleil: He designed the show "Ka" in Las Vegas, and is working on another.

His "Damnation" actually had its premiere in Japan in 1999 -- Susan Graham sang Marguerite then, as she does at the Met now -- but has been re-imagined for the Met with a lot of the interactive technology he tried out in "Ka." That gives the whole thing a circuslike feel: Devils hanging from the rafters! Soldiers walking straight up a vertical wall! After the underwater ballet, a colleague asked whether it was live or filmed. Watching the blurry blue forms projected on the screens covering part of the stage, it was hard to tell.

The party line on this high-tech approach is that it enables Berlioz's sprawling, episodic work, which was first performed as a concert piece, to be brought to the opera stage. This rather overstates the case: "Damnation" is staged every so often, particularly in Europe (there have been four new productions in the past two years, and the San Francisco Opera beat the Met to the punch with a production imported from Munich in 2003). And if theaters routinely mount Wagner's epic works, then Berlioz's cannot be so great a challenge. If "Damnation" is not staged more often, it is as much because of its rather ungainly dramatic organization, or lack thereof -- it is more a sequence of scenes than a narrative per se -- as the challenges it poses to stage directors.

From this description, "Damnation" would seem to be an ideal work for the cinema. Lepage's production, however, is conceived as live theater, and this proved a weakness in the simulcast. The fundamental tension of opera lies in the contrast between intimate emotions and grand scale, something Lepage's large-scale set emphasized: A metal grid, it could be transformed into a single huge surface, like the lake scene described above, or a series of cubbyholes where individuals faced their own small fates, so that Faust (Marcello Giordani) contemplated suicide surrounded by rows of oblivious students, each in his own isolation.

But the camera is about blowing open this contrast and revealing the intimacy in each moment. Some have seen this as a huge advantage of these simulcasts: The audience is truly able to see the singers. And certainly the camera made it a lot easier to follow what exactly was going on. But most of Lepage's achievements in this staging have to do with big set pieces, like the row of crucified Christs appearing to Faust, surrounded by the jewellike tones of slowly kaleidoscoping stained-glass windows. In the movie theater, some of this fell flat -- the theatrical effects were, after all, less impressive than your average film action shot -- and some of it got lost all together as the camera zeroed in on an insignificant detail.

Another signature feature of the simulcasts is that everyone sounds great. There have been complaints over the years about the sound distortion of the Met's live radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. Whatever system they're using for the movie-theater versions seems like the aural equivalent of pink lighting in the ladies' room: It evens out blemishes and flatters every complexion.

That might seem like an advantage, but I am not sure it is; the listener's ear grows lazy, and the singers get away with a lot. Graham sounded fantastic both in the house and in the movie theater; she was the production' s unquestioned star. But in the case of Giordani, who offers himself as a kind of Iron Man of opera (last week, he sang two roles on a single day), the miking helped mask the fact that his sound no longer has the suppleness or the high extension needed for the French repertory he used to claim as his own.

As for John Relyea, he offered, in the house, a variant on the tried-and-true devil shtick that opera-goers have seen countless times before, in a voice that is competent enough, but expressively a cipher; the camera allowed it to appear as if something special was going on.

What was special was the music, which is worth a second hearing, particularly under James Levine, who along with Graham was responsible for the bulk of the expression of the performance. The problem with Lepage's staging is that it remained emotionally two-dimensional: He offered lots of vivid images, and then kept repeating them, but they remained more circus tricks than revelations.

Last year, opera simulcasts seemed the burgeoning form of the future. This year, it is an open question what effect the economic downturn will have.

Emerging Pictures, which partners with opera companies across Europe, is keeping a full program of Italian and German productions in American movie theaters (including Baltimore's Charles Theatre); it will even offer a simulcast of opening night at La Scala with Verdi's "Don Carlo" on Dec. 7. The Bigger Picture, the company teaming with the San Francisco Opera and other opera houses, says that it will announce its next batch of movie-theater broadcasts in the coming months. And the Met, for all its widely alleged financial woes, continues its simulcasts.

The jury is out, however, on whether this is really winning a new audience to opera. At Mazza Gallerie, certainly, the enthusiastic audience looked very much like the same crowd one sees at the Kennedy Center. It's not a new form, then, but promulgation of the old.

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