December in Italy has been stuffed with opera season opening nights like an overfilled Christmas stocking. Last week, La Scala's traditional take on Andrea Chénier spoke of a house that sees itself as the guardian of Italian operatic heritage. A few days later, the Teatro dell’Opera’s adventurous production of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust looked fit for a theatre whose aim is to become a European leader for the cutting-edge quality of its output. The roster may have boasted quality in featuring both director Damiano Michieletto and conductor Daniele Gatti, but that did not save Tuesday’s première from being volleyed with boos. At the conclusion of this second performance of the run, however, there was only warm applause.

Veronica Simeoni (Margeurite) © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Veronica Simeoni (Margeurite)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

And with good reason. While musical standards were patchy, Michieletto's production is fresh, intelligent and destined to go down as one of his best. His Faust is not that imagined by Berlioz and Goethe – namely a world-weary scholar for whom suicide is an antidote to ennui – but a modern-day 30-something plagued by psychological torment and nightmarish visions that have their roots in a troubled past. Faust is pursued by a steadycam that, as with a reality TV show, pitilessly relays the events of his life. The cuboid structure centre stage into which characters disappear, pursued by a camerman, provides little privacy when their images are projected onto the outer wall. When it all gets too much, Faust attempts to overdose on pills, before the choral "Easter Hymn" wafts in to precipitate his salvation.

The balance between tragedy and dark humour for which Michieletto strives is surely not easy to pull off, but the director gets it just right. During his song, Brander, a glitzy showman, poisons a man in a giant rat costume, before removing his headpiece to reveal Faust's alcoholic father inside. The director's boundless imagination is matched with keen musical instinct, so that images such as a young Faust being bullied at school to a muscular rendition of the Hungarian March or a vision of Marguerite seductively devouring an apple to a lush portion of the score find yet greater poetry in Berlioz's sumptuous music.

<i>La Damnation de Faust</i> © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
La Damnation de Faust
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

The production's biggest strength, however, is the skill with which it negotiates the slippery nature of Berlioz's légende dramatique – neither a concert work nor an opera, and one that often sits uncomfortably in either form. The ever present, immobile chorus, arranged on terraced pews behind a scrim above the stage, lends a devotional atmosphere, and projected titles evoking quasi-religious themes ("La Duperie"; "La Damnation") divide the work into a series of meditative snapshots loosely sequenced in a narrative structure as with an oratorio. Indeed, religious imagery abounds, especially that relating to original sin, and Michieletto's allegorical bent, which incorporates recurring motifs such as a door key and images relating to youth, keeps us guessing to the very end. Could the body contained in the coffin wheeled onto a stage featuring Marguerite as her spirit is assumed into heaven by singing angels be that of Faust himself?

Such an active production demands strong displays from singers, and Alex Esposito did not disappoint with an exceptional performance as Méphistophélès. Whether shimmying across the stage, shoving his wide-eyed face into the lens of the camera or striking smouldering poses as he was dressed by an entourage of glamorous women, Esposito fully inhabited his role as vain gameshow host, and artful carving of his text gave it a life of its own. When Marguerite's room was magically rendered a Garden of Eden with a zany quasi-Mannerist twist (scenery: Paolo Fantin), Esposito's Méphistophélès, now dressed as giant lizard, found full eccentric expression.

Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès) © Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

Goran Jurić as Brander matched Esposito for razzle dazzle, but neither Veronica Simeoni's Marguerite nor Pavel Černoch's Faust sounded up to the job. Černoch's reading of the protagonist was wet, his voice sounding strained and lacking in tonal variation. Simeoni's large voice is potentially striking, but her phrasing lacked requisite seductiveness and finesse, and she sang constantly under the note.

Gatti's reading of the score was similarly inconsistent, at times wandering aimlessly, and at others electrifying the auditorium like a bolt out of the blue. That this performance went all the way through without an interval might have provided an opportunity to invest the performance with inexorable, slow-building tension. Gatti at least tried, adopting brisk tempi throughout, but in the end it was the weightier portions that sounded best, in which Gatti impressed with a robust sound full of vim. Faust's descent into Hell had an exhilaratingly primal quality. The accompanying image of the white-suited Méphistophélès slathering himself with a black oily substance was a characteristic example of Michieletto’s cryptic poetry.

****1