La Scala's new Eimuntas Nekrošius production of Gounod's Faust should have been one of the slightly cooler beacons in a depressing season packed with banal duds and tarnished stars. Lithuanian director Nekrošius, a master of modern stage direction, is celebrated in Europe for good reason as a progressive, imaginative, intelligent artist who brings peculiar and unique symbolism to theater and opera repertory. But La Scala, brimming with political nonsense and selfishness, blew up the new production quicker than the Hindenburg (too soon??!).
Cranky loggione (and frankly, all rightful ticketholders of Scala's bloated prices and hefty, non-refundable processing fees) decided from the punctual, 8pm separation of the magenta curtains that the show would not triumph. Not that there was much to be celebratory for: the week leading to opening night carried ripe rumors of a strike-keen staff. And when the curtain finally raised last night, there was a inconvenient stipulation: the chorus -- an unmatched mass in plain clothes and yellow ribbons pinned to their chests -- came out on stage before Stéphane Denève took to the podium and read their union's statement (bafflingly, in Italian only) explaining to the audience that they'd be un-costumed and unwilling to follow Nekrošius' direction in protest of government budget cuts. WTF? The loggione rioted with shouts of "Vergogna" and "These people have no respect -- we've paid for our tickets", booooo, hiss, rinse, repeat -- just another night at La Scala where opera is a contact sport and drama is a way of your life, right?
Then there was the orchestra, in mismatched jeans and t-shirts, who passive-aggressively delayed the curtain opening at the end of each pause, culminating in an opera that lasted 4.5 hours (the website estimated the show would only last 3.5 hours) and a booo-soaked curtain call that jeered the entire cast (including the supers!) -- although Irina Lungu’s Marguerite was spared consternation for her excellent interpretation. Booing which was not completely deserved by a decent (‘tho at times mediocre) cast and an adept conductor. But Nekrošius was robbed of his vision by the childish tactics of a chaotic, disorganized opera house that just can't seem to sort it out. If you destroy it, they won't come.
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And the opera? Nekrošius' reputation in Europe is golden, and his smattering of opera direction has already triumphed in Italy (and Moscow) for Verdi's Macbeth and a legendary 2005 Boris Godunov at Maggio Musicale.
Opera Chic saw Eimuntas Nekrošius' staging of Goethe's Faust three years ago at Milan's Piccolo Teatro, the theater crammed full of art students and hipsters to take in the minimalist, demanding staging from the Lithuanian director. OC left after the first intermission (only 1/4 of the way through the 4-hour trip), the Latvian translation and strobe-light dizziness a bit too intense, and frankly put-off by his direction that she described as "too obscure for the sake of being existential."
But instead of recycling his oppressive, bizarre, and chaotic vision in his Goethe's Faust from the theater stage, Nekrošius’ direction of Gounod's opera, Faust, for its over-posturing, drawn-out libretto and swagger has an unstoppable theatrical flow that he embraced. Of course, almost a half-hour of cuts to the libretto (including the ballet) helped congeal the action.
Nekrošius started off with a bang, a harmonious set of clean lines, a tribute to Brunelleschi's perfect architectural perspective. Swinging for the fences, Act I's sets and costumes were immediately heartbreaking. Faust's study was depicted as two, twinned shafts built from light wood that form an optical illusion of tunneled space. Oversized books littered the floor, pages turning in the wind, while two black angels hovered over the floor and swung their elongated arms at the pages. It was a well-prepared vision of Hieronymus Bosch and Max Ernst, a statement on the nightmarish distortion of collapsing spaces.
Nekrošius has a talent for realizing visions that are not of this world in studied, intelligent renderings. He has a knack for pushing away the boundaries of this century and presenting the ethereal into solid matter. But, as Goethe’s dramatic poem progresses, it's apparent that there are some weaknesses to Nekrošius’ vision. As Act I flowed into the Kermesse of Act II, it’s still intact. But Act III's garden scene in the same mine shaft was too cold and anchoring, static and oppressive. And at worst, anti-climatic to the action. The Act III duets between Marguerite and Faust were strikingly vacuous, regardless of the singers' weak chemistry.
And for all of Gounod’s rich compositional shades and Goethe’s dark tale, there are still moments of ethereal beauty, but Nekrošius had difficulty in portraying them, stuck in the grotesque and noir (but thankfully never gothic), which detracted from the overall effectiveness of the production. The symbolism that Nekrošius gets such a kick out of was alienating at times (Méphistophélès carried around a long-jumper’s vaulting pole).
Stéphane Denève’s conducting was very well thought-out, and he wrapped the overture in sweet Technicolor. Gorgeous and light, it shadowed none of Gounod’s doomsday echoing thunders of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. No new interpretation, and no threatening pall, Denève’ showed off a dynamic that was never overworked, affected, or showy. Which totally worked. Gounod’s dark markings subdued, Denève’ had a light touch and gave the music plenty of space and air to breathe through a lovely, quickened tempo. And awesomely La Scala used the Tamburini organs that Toscanini demanded in 1948 for creepy power-ups.
Marcello Giordani's Faust started off shaky with scary lack of control…at times too loud and forced. Méphistophélès duets left much to be desired. Giordani's acting was wooden and distant and one had the sense that he was so obsessed with controlling his voice that acting didn’t demand his priorities. Giordani-as-Faust was too beefy, gruff and meaty. But he recovered by the time he hit "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure”.
Roberto Scandiuzzi's Méphistophélès was decent, and Nekrošius’ direction refreshingly presented a bastard that wasn’t a pimp or a vulgar caricature. “Le veau d’or” was a nice show of the tessitura, but Scandiuzzi didn’t have enough charisma to make the character memorable. His sidekick, a little kung-fu kicking sailor boy straight from a 1930s shanghai comic book “fantasma adorabile” was fun.
Nino Surguladze's dejected Siébel, in a teal green jumpsuit from the 70s, was given a pitying limp. A solid voice, “Faites-lui mes aveux” was ringing and bright. Irina Lungu's Marguerite was fabulous, well-studied, firm, and confident. "Ô Dieu! que de bijoux!" showed a fabulous weight to her voice. Dalibor Jenis’ Valentin in a festive jacket held his weight well.
The chorus, when they appeared in plain clothes, eviscerating Nekrošius’ careful vision, giving the distinct impression that one had mistakenly walked into an open rehearsal (at la prima ticket prices, however). Instead of a message of solidarity and a statement on workers’ unfair conditions, you focused instead on how badly-dressed and awkward they are. In a frankly boring and unexciting 2009/10 season, Nekrošius’ Faust should have been a bright light, rounding out mediocrity and banality of an odd-pastiche season. Nekrošius delivers the goods without the hype and gimmick that his less-talented peers have to rely on. Too bad he couldn’t be matched by an equal administration.
Save the drama for yo' Mama!