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'Faust,' a vivid eyeful

L.A. Opera opens its season in dazzling style with Achim Freyer's innovative staging.

September 12, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

With the alluring Walt Disney Concert Hall promising a new day for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it is easy to forget that it means a new dawn for Los Angeles Opera as well. Now that the orchestra has vacated the premises, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is a full-time opera house. For the first time in its 17-year history, L.A. Opera can rehearse and program as much as it wants.

But what to do about audiences entering the familiar old Pavilion already dazzled by peeks at Frank Gehry's glamorous steel? The solution Wednesday night, when L.A. Opera opened its season with Achim Freyer's new production of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust," was to put something on stage that is dazzling in its own right.

Still, it took courage for Placido Domingo, the company's general director, to invite Freyer back -- and on an opening night at that -- after the German theater artist's controversial version of Bach's B-Minor Mass last winter. Although that mystifying, painterly, abstract staging of a revered sacred Baroque score may have attracted a fresh, young, hip, visually attuned first-time audience to the company, it offended many traditional operagoers. That crowd, which booed and wrote angry letters to The Times, is the mainstay of the company's financial support and formed a good part of the audience opening night.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera season -- A review of Los Angeles Opera in Friday's Calendar incorrectly stated that the company mounted director Achim Freyer's version of Bach's B-Minor Mass last winter. The production actually played in February 2002.

Nevertheless, Domingo's faith in Freyer and his continued desire to make L.A. a center for innovative opera paid off Wednesday with a standing ovation for Freyer. In his program notes, the director and designer has hardly given up his nearly indigestible conceptualizing about man, God, the projection of two-dimensional images into three in a multidimensional world and whatnot.

But what he puts on stage is riotous, and the new production, which is far more theatrically vivid than the Mass (beautifully intriguing, to these eyes, as that was), shows why Freyer has long been an important figure in German theater. As in the Mass, the director fills scenes with mute members of his Freyer Ensemble, but this time there are also full-fledged opera stars on stage, with a cast headed by Denyce Graves, Samuel Ramey and Paul Groves.

"Damnation" is not really an opera, but it comes close and actually reaches the stage more often than Berlioz's three actual operas. The composer called it a "dramatic legend" and preferred it to be presented in concert form. It dramatizes scenes from Goethe's play rather than attempting to be dramatically cohesive. And some scenes are so utterly phantasmagorial and imaginatively orchestrated that you almost hate to see them pinned down with visual imagery. On the other hand, "Damnation" is a proper license for directors to go wild.

Four years ago at the Salzburg Festival, a Spanish directorial team that goes by the name La Fura dels Baus had Faust throw his ego into a huge smelting machine that created new persons, sort of like the pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." In June, San Francisco Opera turned "Damnation" into an amusing S&M fantasy -- sylphs with whips.

Freyer is only slightly less outrageous and no less fanciful. He views the story as a fleeting, nightmare vision in the moments before Faust's death. In Berlioz's scenario, Faust, weary of life, is about to take poison but hesitates, swayed first by the sound of a far-off chorus singing an Easter hymn and then by the persuasive appearance of Mephistopheles, the devil. About the only thing to keep Freyer's Faust from his final cocktail, however, is a large, black, frisky poodle (your guess on the symbolism is as good as mine). Drink Faust does, and all that follows is crazy delusion.

And what follows is an eyeful. The stage is gorgeously lighted by Heinrich Brunke. Above a gauzy scrim is a glowing arc, its colors ever-changing. "Damnation" is rich in choral writing, and Freyer dresses peasants, students and monks in bizarre giant masks and has them clump around. His own ensemble mixes in, also extravagantly dressed but adding oddball comic choreographic skits and spectacular acrobatics and flying. The sylphs are -- well, it's better that you see these strange white creatures, grotesque yet graceful, for yourself. The "will-o'-the-wisps" Mephistopheles conjures up are a dancing light show to make Cirque du Soleil jealous. Faust and Mephistopheles fly around on a light fixture.

"Damnation" should also be an earful. Given the sheer extravagance of Berlioz's orchestral writing, there is always something lost when the work is staged and the orchestra confined to a pit, and the Pavilion's pit is deep and sound-absorbing. Kent Nagano conducted with an emphasis on graceful singing lines and instrumental delicacy, and not everything could be heard. But what was audible was often very beautiful.

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