Susan Graham and Marcello Giordani
in La Damnation de Faust
(© Ken Howard)
Susan Graham and Marcello Giordani
in La Damnation de Faust
(© Ken Howard)
Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust was hanging about for several decades -- and not gathering heaps of respect -- before the Metropolitan Opera got around to staging it in 1906. That was the first and also last time it was seen there until now. Canadian director Robert Lepage has installed a reconceived version of the technologically intricate production he initially mounted for the Saito Kinen Festival and the Opera National de Paris, and loyal opera patrons will undoubtedly conclude the wait was worth it.

Long impressed with Gerard de Nerval's French translation of Goethe's Faust, Berlioz collaborated with Almire Gandonniere in 1845 on a libretto that could hardly be called the basis of a traditional opera. Indeed, Berlioz eventually concocted the phrase "legende dramatique" for the series of sketchy scenes for four soloists, chorus and ballet troupe -- which in its vagueness is as good a tag as any.

The inventive Lepage has run with the possibilities open to him to turn the gorgeously subtle piece into a work of all-stops-out theater. His complement of bells and whistles comes in the form of elaborately colorful videos -- of Anselm Kiefer-like bookcases, of wide blue skies, of Cy Twombly-like fields of grass, of men floating in water, of stained-glass windows -- projected on set designer Carl Fillion's multi-tiered, seemingly cast-iron grid. It's a structure on which designer Sonoyo Nishikawa can achieve stunning effects, such as a series of isolated crucifixes.

The entire Lepage team -- which also includes costume designer Karin Erskine, interactive video Holger Forterer, image designer Boris Firquet , and choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier -- builds a foundation on which conductor James Levine can be persuasive, and even occasionally inspired, with Berlioz's melodies. Moreover, his singers do him proud. As Marguerite, Susan Graham is the luckiest one, since she gets to pour her warm mezzo soprano on the two most exquisite arias Berlioz provided for the work, "The Roi de Thule" and "D'amour l'ardente flame." As the latter unfolds, it suddenly seems like the most amazing aria ever written for anything. Marcello Giordani, commanding in the title role, sees to it that his tenor is full throughout his range. John Relyea's Mephistopheles in plumed cap is wily seducing Faust and imprisoning Marguerite; his "Song of the Flea" is especially mischievous.

Donald Palumbo polishes the chorus to a high sheen, although Lepage might rethink asking the male choristers to appear bare-chested as souls in hell. However, the dancers who appear as soldiers walking perpendicularly up the grid -- and later in the guise of Mephistopheles' athletic helpers -- make the same defying-gravity impression that Lepage does with the entire Berlioz souffle.