Blouinartinfo, December 15, 2015
BY Warwick Thompson
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust, Paris, Opera Bastille, 8. Dezember 2015
Stephen Hawking in Opera: “La damnation de Faust” at Opéra National de Paris
Sometimes an opera production is so deliciously bad that it’s good. “La damnation de Faust” at Opéra National de Paris doesn’t even plumb the depths of paradox.

Latvian director Alvis Hermanis uses Berlioz’s 1846 “dramatic legend” to expound the idea that science can be a force for bad as well as good. If certain members of the audience have just stepped out from the lead boxes in which they’ve been sealed since birth, this might be news to them. For the rest of us, it’s not exactly stop-press information.

But if the concept is banal, its realization is made worse by the director’s ineptitude and literalism. The action takes place in the near future, on the day before a human mission to Mars is about to depart. We know this thanks to reams of text projected onto large metal screens spelling out the expositionary ideas.

Anyone hoping for “show, don’t tell” can whistle for it.

Faust (Jonas Kaufmann) is a scientist. His friend Stephen Hawking (yes, that Stephen Hawking: a silent role, performed by dancer Dominique Mercy) trundles around the stage in his wheelchair while preparations are made for the mission. Meanwhile Méphistophélès (Bryn Terfel), another scientist, experiments on human beings by locking them in Perspex boxes and zapping them and being generally nasty. All the while, video images of plants and sea-creatures are projected on screens above the action. At the end of the piece, Faust’s girlfriend Marguerite (Sophie Koch) hops on a flight to Mars.

Who could blame her? The three leads, all excellent singing actors, are given no direction, no individuality, no characterization. They come on stage, stand still, sing, and then leave. It’s a similar case with the chorus members, who mostly remain immobile in regimented ranks, just like the bad old days of park-and-bark opera. Movement is provided by a troupe of dancers in their underwear. They judder, twitch, cavort, jiggle, and writhe (choreography Alla Sigalova). They also spend a lot of time getting zapped by Méphistophélès. They do pretty much everything, in fact, except dance.

With all the wearisome nonsense on stage, it’s a miracle that the soloists sound as great as they do. Jonas Kaufmann makes an exceptionally thrilling Faust, with money-notes of awesome ease and power, and his climactic aria “Nature immense” is as electrifying piece of singing as you’re likely to hear anywhere. Terfel is a wonderfully seductive villain, and Koch sings with exquisite richness and delicacy. Conductor Philippe Jordan provides a sensuous account of the score, which is both luxurious and febrile. He occasionally lacks rhythmic drive, and the celebrated “Ride to the Abyss” feels somewhat underpowered; but he makes up for it with playing of luxurious warmth.

At the second performance of the staging, the audience cheered all the musicians involved. Unsurprisingly, they howled and booed the production.

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