Hector Berlioz said of the poorly-received première of La Damnation de Faust: “Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference”. He referred to the piece as a “dramatic legend”, rather than an opera; the première was performed in concert (as an oratorio might be), but Berlioz apparently wasn’t satisfied with subsequent performances that were fully staged, either. Even today, the work is more frequently performed in concert than it is staged. Robert Lepage’s 2008 production of La Damnation uses exciting new technology in thoughtful ways to achieve a successful staging of an awkward work.

The primary piece of equipment in creating the “sets” is a giant video screen, subdivided by scaffolding into smaller boxes, that responds to the singers’ movements in producing images, thus ensuring no one performance will ever look (or sound) precisely like another. At various times, the backdrop becomes: a desolate, windswept landscape in black-and-white; the exterior of Marguerite’s house, with the scaffolding allowing Faust to climb in and out of her window; the cross-section of a rowdy tavern; and a fantastical projection of figures dancing and contorting underwater. That this technology is so seamlessly integrated into the production of a work written more than 150 years ago is thanks to the artistic vision of Mr Lepage and his team: associate director Neilson Vignola, set designer Carl Fillion, lighting designer Sonoyo Nishikawa, image designer Boris Firquet, and interactive video designer Holger Förterer. (Also crucial to the production are choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier, and costume designer Karin Erskine.)

Mr Lepage’s video screen backdrop is an effective tool in solving certain problems inherent in the score, such as several lengthy orchestral interludes between scenes. The production takes a minimalist view of moments like this, with figures on stage repeating certain movements almost robotically. Mr Lepage thereby turns these interludes into meditative displays, adding an attractive (if occasionally bizarre) visual element as a kind of non-invasive accompaniment to Berlioz’s lush score.

John Relyea as Méphistophélès is seductive and treacherous – in everything from his body language and timing to his phrasing, he is the polar opposite of Marguerite, sung beautifully by Susan Graham. Marcello Giordani is a somewhat stilted Faust, and vocally the least impressive of the leads. He provides a good foil, though, for the pious Marguerite and tantalizing Méphistophélès. Patrick Carfizzi entertains as the student Brander amid the chaos of Auerbach’s tavern. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra plays superbly under Maestro James Levine, and the Met Opera Chorus, directed by Donald Palumbo, sounds rich and balanced.

Unlike some other projects at the Met and elsewhere in recent years, the technological aspect of this production was widely praised at the time, and seemed not to stir up much controversy. Writing for the magazine Variety, Eric Myers called it “…a staging of cinematic fluidity,” and the production received a positive reaction from the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini as well. Mr Lepage’s take on La Damnation de Faust is a good one for listeners curious to see a fresh, effective staging of this complicated but beautiful score.