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Demon Poodle Invades Opera House!

My youngest sister sings regularly with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Opera. Thanks to her generosity and fundamental kindness toward her brother, I attended the dress rehearsal of L.A. Opera’s new production of Berlioz' Damnation of Faust. (The production opens tonight; gala festivities ensue.)

This new production is a joint project with the Polish National Opera, Warsaw, directed and designed by Achim Freyer, who made his U.S. directorial debut in Los Angeles in 2002 with a staging of Bach’s B Minor Mass. (Freyer seems to have a penchant for staging, in Los Angeles, pieces not originally conceived as operas: Berlioz intended his Faust to be an oratorio, not necessarily an opera.) With him, Freyer brings his own Ensemble and these photos will give you an idea of his stock in trade: surrealism, expressionism and enough papier mache heads and masks to fit out a small anti-globalization rally. I was reminded repeatedly of James Ensor’s painting of “Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889”.

The production is never less than interesting to look at, though Freyer’s expressionist sensibilities are not always a good match for Berlioz’ Gallic grandiosity. When Berlioz introduces an Easter hymn near the outset, he means its spirituality to strike at the heart of Faust’s world-weary cynicism and to offer him a chance at redemption before his temptation. The music is accordingly sincere. Freyer, however, takes the occasion to reveal a blasphemous tableau of pig-faced cardinals and a crucified Christ resembling a skinned rabbit. In contrast, when Marguerite ascends to heaven in the finale, Freyer plays it straight on a largely bare, white-lit stage, and the effect is exhilarating.

The three principals -- Faust, Marguerite [whose last name we learn is Oppenheim] and Mephistopheles -- all sport stark whiteface, with Faust most resembling Cesar the Somnambulist, albeit with a better tailor. Denyce Graves as Marguerite -- who has nothing to sing until the second half of the evening, but does so splendidly when her turn finally comes -- is weighed down by braids that extend into the wings and that at one point levitates to resemble helicopter blades.

And, oh yes, the poodle. Would that I could show you pictures of the poodle. Its function is unclear -- it seems to be a portent of the arrival of Mephistopheles and is not seen again until the curtain call once that hardworking devil has made his appearance -- but it is an impressive costume, with glowing red eyes, and the Ensemble member inside it sits, stays and heels in a most poodle-like fashion.

Whatever missteps he makes in the early going -- and there are fewer than perhaps you might think from my descriptions -- his finale is stupendous: by a combination of virtuoso staging and lighting effects, Faust and Mephistopheles fly at tremendous speed toward the poor mortal’s deposit into a suitably lurid, Bosch-like Hell, sufficient to put the fear into any sinner. That coup de theatre is followed by the still beauty of Marguerite’s apotheosis. And when Berlioz -- having previously pulled out every other stop in his repertoire -- finally calls for a children’s choir, it appears from out of the floor like the foreground figures in Rossetti's Blessed Damozel. It is a strong finish that goes far toward leaving the viewer with more good will toward the production than might have been expected.

The music? I’m no judge of these things, but the principals (particularly Graves and Samuel Ramey in the full demonic mode that is a cornerstone of his career) sounded good to me. The chorus and orchestra provided the full range of sonic effects that Berlioz demanded, which is a wide range indeed.

Opera purists will probably want to close their eyes and just enjoy the music -- this is the sort of production that most definitely would not please culture blogger AC Douglas -- but fanciers of the Cirque du Soleil/Robert Wilson school of design and staging should be very happy with that there is to see, and the final scenes should please both camps.


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