The Dark Side: La Damnation de Faust from the Opera di Roma

Berlioz – La Damnation de Faust

Faust – Pavel Černoch
Marguerite – Veronica Simeoni
Méphistophélès – Alex Esposito
Brander – Goran Jurić

Scuola di Canto Corale del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma / Daniele Gatti.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto.  Video director – Antonio Marra

Teatro Costanzi, Rome, Italy.  Tuesday, November 12th, 2017.  Streamed via RAI Cinque.

The Italian public broadcaster, RAI, has given us this very welcome opportunity to see Damiano Michieletto’s 2017 staging of La Damnation de Faust.  Co-produced with València’s Palau de les Arts and the Tetro Regio in Turin, I was very much hoping to see this production in the Piemontese capital this month.  Alas, it was not to be but at least this video record is some consolation.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Notoriously hard to stage, Michieletto gives us a radical interpretation of the tale.  The large chorus is used statically, relegated to bleachers high above the action, while the stage action itself is led by the principals and a corps of dancers.  Michieletto makes use of live film to magnify the events on stage, projecting these onto a backdrop at the back of the stage, but underneath the bleachers.  He transforms this battle between good and evil into a man’s journey through life – from facing the death of his mother, to discovering true love.  We see Faust bullied at school, but also the frisson of first love when he first lays eyes on Marguerite.  Interestingly, he’s less of a willing participant in this journey as having been deliberately duped by Méphistophélès, a charismatic figure able to weave a myriad number of spells on others around him.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Indeed, in the hands of Alex Esposito, Méphistophélès very much becomes the heart of the show.  Esposito is tireless in working it around the stage – his need to have control over others palpable, whether in him making out with Faust during the students’ and soldiers’ chorus, or his attempted rape of Marguerite towards the end.  There’s an ambivalence there, a frightening correlation between the sheer charisma of the character and that need to have total control over others.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

This is an exceptionally physical staging and it says much about the stamina of these fine principals that not only did they keep the energy levels up, they also threw themselves into everything asked of them.  It had clearly been exceptionally fluidly rehearsed and it looks seriously impressive – the sets constantly evolving.  On the whole, Michieletto’s concept works – he gives us a modern day interpretation of devilry, far from the religious piety that comes through the text; instead, giving us a psychologically complex view of how we allow ourselves to succumb to temptation – and how easy it is to be taken advantage of, and to lose what one loves.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

This isn’t, however, a performance that lives off the text.  The clarity of the diction of the principals and chorus is disappointing.  Of course, one does not need to be francophone to sing excellent French – there are so many non-francophone singers out there today who have excellent command of the tongue of Molière.  Here, the text was far too frequently unclear.  The chorus also sounds extremely recessed on this recording, to the extent that I did wonder if a few entries had been missed.  From what I could hear, the ladies had a tendency to vibrate extremely generously, but the gentlemen were generally firm but, as recorded, lacking in body of sound.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Esposito was a physically utterly magnetic Méphistophélès.  His energy is absolutely phenomenal – with enough to power an entire city.  As a bass, he took the lower options indicated in the score.  He brought out an elegant sense of line in ‘voici des roses’, pouring out streams of burnished tone.  He also brought out a wit to the line of the more lively numbers.  Yes, his performance didn’t quite have the full impact it could have due to the diction, but Esposito was undeniably watchable and more than held the stage.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Pavel Černoch sang a valiant Faust.  This, of course, is a role that sits extremely high and Černoch shirked nothing in his assumption.  The tone has a tendency to tightness in the very upper reaches and I do wish he had perhaps experimented a little more with voix mixte, particularly in the love duet, though his phrasing was always long-breathed and eloquent.  He’s also a highly charismatic stage presence and his dedication to Michieletto’s vision was impressive.  Veronica Simeoni sang Marguerite with generosity and passion.  It sounds to my ears that the role sits rather high for her, the higher reaches not quite à point and the voice not spinning up there in the way that it ideally should.  Her mezzo has an agreeable claret warmth in the middle and the vibrations were even.  Again, her diction was regrettably incomprehensible.  Goran Jurić’s velvety bass was an asset as Brander, here dressed as a 1970s game show host.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Daniele Gatti led an efficient reading, with a rousing ‘marche hongroise’.  The tuning of the strings of the orchestra was certainly not for those of a sensitive disposition and the chorus, perhaps due to their elevated position, was frequently behind the beat.  Gatti’s tempi felt sensible and fluid, allowing the action to unfold naturally.

Photo: © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

This was undoubtedly an interesting way to spend an afternoon and I was certainly glad to have the opportunity to see Michieletto’s staging – at least on the small screen.  It makes for a fascinating exploration of the work, perhaps less emotionally visceral than some of Michieletto’s other work, but none the less an interesting study of the darker side of human nature.  The reception of the Roman audience to the production team was rather mixed – some boos from the reactionary conservatives, but also a lot of positive ‘bravi’s.  While the energy of the cast, and their sheer dedication to the staging was admirable, the unclear diction and the distant recording of the all-important chorus were disappointments.  It’s certainly worth watching and I very much hope that it will be revived soon so that one can have the opportunity to see it in the theatre.

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