Pizza. French Fry. Pizza. French Fry. Stripper Pole? Damnation of Faust at Lyric Opera
First of all, let's talk about Berlioz: Martian, time traveler, or what? Nineteen scenes born of his obsession with Goethe's characters, heavenly vocal pieces strung together with even better orchestral passages. Sir Andrew and the orchestra were absolutely superb.
This is the first time Lyric has staged Damnation, the production is new, and tonight was opening night. Being spoiler-phobic (yes, even when the source material is 160 years old), I have no idea what buzz, if any, there is surrounding this, but I'm going to make a prediction that there'll be praise for the performers and white-hot, searing hatred for the production.
I'll start from the top: The blacker-than-black stage curtains retract in multiple directions to unveil Faust's study, which is a square about 1/6 the size of the stage in the three-dimensional center of the field (i.e., the floor is raised above the stage's floor). The study is stark white and rigidly bounded by the masking curtains as well as walls flown in upstage of the curtain. It evokes snapping on an old tube television and waiting for its pinpoint of light to expand to the corners of the screen. And Berlioz's music, for all the world, has suggests the hum of it warming up.
Faust is hunched over a small computer cart, typing, writing, writing, typing, until suddenly the white walls confining him erupt with text—hand written notes, overlapped with monospaced computer fonts, sliding, scrolling, spilling out from him and over him to the audience as he darts around in the cramped space, scrawling on paper, typing madly.
A for effort on the part of Stage Director Stephen Langridge, but unfortunately Cish in execution: The computer cart is about 10x too crowded with what appears to be an Apple IIe, and a clamp-on desk lamp. Faust's stool is several inches taller than the cart (and has wheels), so when he's meant to be sitting on it, he looks for all the world like he's hovering over a gas station toilet seat. There's no space to write on the desk, so Paul Groves is forced to doodle against his own thigh. And thus the awesome mood was partially squandered.
Until scene 2! Because the curtains draw back entirely, and Faust's study is suspended in midair over an army clones hell-bent on picnicking. No, wait! It's very cool!
First, just the curtains draw back, and the only lighting for the chorus was the projections, which by now were shapes and pulses of light. But then Faust's study begins to descend, and eventually he is on the ground, surrounded by these groups, each of which has an older woman in a pale green 2-piece suit, a youngish man in a sport coat and tie, and a youngish woman in a skirt and twin set. Each group unfurled a red-and-white checked picnic blanket and settled on to the ground.
Around the margins, some of the skirt/twinset women were, instead, passionately kissing soldiers about to go off to war. (The soldiers, alas, were in some motley camouflage and would be undetectable only in my grandmother's living room, I think.)
Later, these women are pushing prams through the picnickers, then children of various ages appear and chase one another through the scene. Occasionally, another woman pushes one of the older women across the stage in a wheel chair. Eventually, the unattached women serve as flag bearers, and the projection across the whole stage becomes a German-adjacent flag (red, gold, and black, but with a complex A-based emblem in the center; I think it was made up, but my ignorance may be showing).
All the while, Faust is in the thick of the scene, yet wholly apart. The design, the blocking, choreography, everything contributes to the eternal, absolute sense of his isolation. And still, there is nothing about the use of the chorus that relegates them to propping up the main character: Despite their absolute identity with one another, they are people forming relationships, taking risks, making mistakes, loving, going to war, aging, maturing, not maturing. Exceptionalism and universalism together. Neat.
In the fourth scene, we're briefly returned to Faust's study where he contemplates his own navel and decides to end it all. As usual, some old time church music stays the killing hand. But as the curtains retract again, the hymn is not quite what you expect: At stage left is a series of flag-draped caskets with the funeral congregation at stage right.
The reveal is effective, but again some problematic design elements crept in during this scene. First of all, although I think the flags were the same color and design as those in the previous scene, under the lighting at the top of scene 4, they read as orange, yellow, and white, and I don't think they were going for candy corns.
But a bigger problem presented itself. From the ceiling a wall-to-wall beam was flown in. Based on further developments, I think that the beam itself was covered in reflective material so that its color could be changed with lighting alone. However, at this point it was bright yellow and it looked like a french fry. THEN a floor-to-ceiling pole was lowered in, intersecting the french fry close to the stage right proscenium, and I thought, "Oh dear, it's a stripper pole." For the first 10 minutes or so that these elements were on set—until they were flooded with yellow—I really didn't get that they were supposed to represent the cross inside the church.
So hold the french-fry-intersecting-stripper-pole in mind for just a moment. Perhaps you're eagerly awaiting the arrival of Mephistopheles on the scene? Fear not: This is where he comes in. The reveal and costuming here, I'm afraid to say, were disappointing. It turns out, of course, that he's the priest officiating at the mass funeral. When he reveals himself (umm . . . ok, I'll leave it) to Faust, he tears off his collar and doffs his cassock to reveal—a shiny royal blue/purple suit and black turtleneck?
I get that this is well-tread ground. I get that you don't want to go cliché (although what, I ask you, is ZOMG! DEVIL AS PRIEST!) I get that you don't want to put him in bright red. (For what it's worth, my annoyingly chatty neighbor INSISTED not only on bright red, she wanted a tail and horns.) But the shiny suit just made him look like he shops Liberace cast-offs.
So back to the french fry–stripper pole nexus. As Méphistophélès begins his seduction of Faust, his attention is drawn inexorably to the stripper pole and, well, he pretty much gives it a hand job. Remember, at this point, I am still thinking this is a tragic design accident, so I am basically in the shoes of Emma Thompson in the Tall Guy as she's watching Elephant! unfold.
But it's intentional. Because scene 6 is set in a strip club. The single yellow french fry is flown out and lo! The ACTUAL stripper pole is left behind. Vertically staggered neon-pink french fries are flown in to provide a sparkly backdrop, and strippers in corset-based rat costumes tumble out of two of the coffins.
COME BACK! It was actually really neat!
Ok, I admit that I cannot stop laughing when I think about the design meetings and the uphill battle, the passionate arguments in favor of, the decision to die on the hill of the stripper pole. But still, I was absolutely delighted at the way they handled the transition.
It's in this scene that we meet the only other major character in the opera, Brander, who enters into a "Devil Went Down In Georgia"-esque singing contest with Méphistophélès. As much as I (ultimately) loved the devotion-to-debauchery transition, though, I am wondering who, other than me, is paying attention to two—admittedly rockstar—bass-baritones and their dick-waving competition when they are AT A STRIP CLUB?
To compound this logistical flaw in the design, there is no getting around the fact that Branden's make-up and costume design goes well beyond homage and into plagiarism. Plagiarism of Riff Raff. Apparently neither strippers, nor songs about vermin, nor even the Rocky Horror Picture Show can satisfy Faust, who insists they leave.
Marguerite, of course, is the next trick up Méphistophélèseses's sleeve. As he and Faust wander through a field of roses and canoodling lovers, the upstage wall parts slightly to reveal Marguerite's bedroom, which is straight out of a 1950s sitcom: A chest of drawers, a bedside lamp, and a narrow twin bed with a crucifix hanging over it. As Méphistophélès lures Faust into the dream, Marguerite—who we now recognize as the woman pushing the wheelchair in earlier scenes—repeatedly enters and leaves the scene, each time curling, fully clothed, on the very edge of the bed.
So we've gotten to intermission without actually meeting Marguerite. And when Marguerite is Susan Graham, you have to sort of resent that, because she just gets better and better. But resentment aside, the set for Marguerite's home and the staging therein are wonderful. The bedroom set turns out to be the center of three panels. At stage right, the bedroom opens on to a patio with a cafe table and chairs. At stage left, Marguerite's mother sits in an armchair, facing an upstage television. Her folded wheelchair leans against the wall next to the door.
Méphistophélès urges Faust to hide under the bed as Marguerite serially attends to her mother, enters her bedroom and wearily sheds her coat, and slips out on the patio to enjoy an illicit cigarette. She sings about a legend of unending love and her dreams of Faust.
As her simply gorgeous ballad (through almost all of which the guy behind me was coughing, a guy up and to my left was coughing, and my annoyingly chatty neighbor decided that the way to remedy the coughing was to dig through a GIANT HOBO BAG APPARENTLY FILLED WITH SILVERWARE AND BROKEN GLASS to find a cough drop, which she then unwrapped as loudly as possible, then loudly and rudely offered it to the guy behind us, WHO HAD ALREADY UNWRAPPED HIS OWN COUGH DROP [and who was really making a heroic effort to suppress the coughing]) gives way to orchestral music, doubles for Marguerite enter and exit the various areas of her house, repeating her earlier actions. Soon, these are joined by Faust doubles and the pace accelerates into a cascade of mundane domestic scenes and tantalizing foreplay. As with the opening scenes, it's breathtaking the way the staging plays with time, despair, sparks of connection. And oh! The magnificent line it treads between farce and tragedy! Just lovely.
As with the earlier scenes, the design, although effective, isn't perfect. While Faust is infiltrating Marguerite's reality as thoroughly as he has infiltrated her dreams, Méphistophélès and his spirits are providing seductive backup. Marguerite's house, like Faust's study, is elevated above the stage floor, and the spirits appear in male–female, soldier–twinset pairs on the apron. The choreography echoes, but doesn't faithfully mimic the movements playing out above. Not that I yearn for rigid logical cohesion, but this element just ended up being confused and not especially seductive.
Just as Marguerite and Faust get down to business, Méphistophélès, King of Cock Blockers, arrives to announce the gathering mob. This time, the whole chorus appears from doors below the house. The men are in wife beaters and suspenders, wielding cleavers, axes, and hammers, while the women sport aprons and rolling pins, beating down the romance with the weight of parochial domesticity. It's nice, but everyone's wearing blue rubber gloves. So I'm thinking that either George Souglides (set and costume designer) is either a big cult SciFi fan, or the victim of an unfortunate series of pop culture coincidences.
Marguerite's fallen status and eventual imprisonment are signaled by a costume change: Rather than the dull-patterned wrap dress of filial duty, she wears a peignoir. Initially, we see only her severely framed bedroom as she obsesses about Faust. Eventually the curtains draw back to reveal her mother's sheet-draped body on the living room floor as uniformed investigators collect evidence from the scene. On the patio, a female jailer stands by.
From here, the story demands a return to Faust's study, the expected blood contract, a hell-bent ride through a forest of demons to save Marguerite, the damnation of the former and redemption of the latter. Faust signs a square of floor with end-of-broadcast snow projected on to it, scrawling barely recognizable letters into a broad jet of red. To signal the ride, the rat/strippers return to kind of tie him to his lab chair and put . . . goggles? . . . on him? Not my favorite narrative choice, especially as a series of blue french fries descends in a kind of pick-up-stix formation to suggest a forest canopy. As Faust descends into a narrow trench in the center of the stage, the chorus of demons sets down their hammers, which was a little too on-the-nose Communism.
But Marguerite's redemption was beautiful, despite multi-colored french fries and the return of the stripper-pole cross. It's the same old set from the earlier funerals, but this time the chorus is arranged on either side of an aisle, facing the audience. Marguerite herself sits on a set of upstage stairs, observing. The adult chorus is joined by children attired in an array of patterns that are remarkable after army-of-clones approach that deliberately dominated the costume design up to this point.
As the heavenly chorus calls to Marguerite, she makes her way downstage to the splash of Faust's blood. She lays a single rose on it, then turns to—ok, I guess you have to do it—walk into the light.
If I haven't mentioned the performers (other than Graham) it is not meant as any kind of slight. Groves (Faust), Relyea (Méphistophélès), and Van Horn (Brander), are magnificent individually and in concert. The chorus is stupendous.
Hmmm . . . I guess I'm pretty critical at points here, but make no mistake: With all its flaws, I really loved this production. It's such a wonderful canvas for Berlioz's music. It underscores how unlike anything contemporary this work is, musically, formally, and conceptually. And I would rather see a dozen fresh, ambitious, insightful productions like this than that dusty-ass old Tosca. And strangely enough, the same audience that walked out of The Cunning Little Vixen (seriously, your loss, assholes) stayed to the end and applauded wildly for this. Yes, I heard some boos when the design team came out, but they were far outnumbered by the sighs, laughter, and appreciative noises I heard throughout, to say nothing of the thunderous applause for the performers.