Robert Lepage crafted one of the most engrossing productions in recent Metropolitan Opera history when he staged Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust in 2008. His vision for the work – an opera/oratorio hybrid the composer called a légende dramatique – involved a technological dreamscape, with video loops and projections reflecting the conflicted nature of the title character. Unfortunately, financial and technical requirements forced the company to cancel a full-scale revival, its first in a decade, and instead present the work in a largely unstaged concert version.

Edward Gardner conducts Ildar Abdrazakov and the Met orchestra and chorus
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

This decision allowed the audience to experience the piece as Berlioz first conceived it, and highlighted the most successful element on display: the beautiful playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Edward Gardner’s baton. Gardner drew much gorgeous coloring, bringing out the drama embedded in the music and drawing attention to the richly varied character of the score. The Dance of the Sylphs emerged with the right mix of elegance and ardency, while Faust’s ultimate arrival in Hell was appropriately chilling. This orchestra long ago proved itself to be more than a “pit band”, but in this performance, they achieved star status.

What a shame, then, that the musicians were not placed onstage. When encountering a work in concert – especially one with minimal staging – a fair amount of the drama should come from watching the orchestral members and their interactions with the conductor, and each other. Relegated to the pit, that dimension was lost. Instead, the audience was asked to spend long stretches staring at a mostly bare stage, save for a few chairs and the chorus on risers. The theatrical thrust of the performance simply did not match the musical urgency.

Bryan Hymel, Ildar Abdrazakov and the Met Opera Chorus
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

A sense of expressiveness was largely missing from the soloists as well. Bryan Hymel sang the daunting title role respectably, in a recognizably French style that’s light on vibrato, though his high notes were often hard-won. Yet he never made much of the words, and he looked lost when he wasn’t singing. Ildar Abdrazakov’s Méphistophélès cut a dashing figure in white tie and tails – the perfect look for a seductive devil – but he similarly lacked much sense of how to infuse his presence with much flair. Both men could take a lesson from Patrick Carfizzi, who turned Brander’s relatively short solo aria into a showstopper.

Elīna Garanča
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Only Elīna Garanča succeeded in presenting a thoroughly conceived character, musically and dramatically. Her performance of the opera’s best-known aria, “D’amour l’ardente flamme”, was at once graceful and plangent, easily communicating Marguerite’s conflicted emotions. And although the lack of a full-scale revival means the loss of Lepage’s coup de théâtre ending, in which Marguerite ascends to Heaven on a suspended white ladder, Garanča made her character’s assumption a genuinely moving moment through simple, connected acting.