Robert Lepage’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’: Opera in the Age of Windows

November 1, 2009, Diane Mehta, Fast Company

Robert Lepage has elevated the Metropolitan Opera’s La Damnation de Faust [1] to a new level—four of them, actually. 

The set, introduced last year and revived this season, is four stories partitioned off by five columns, a Hollywood Squares-style wall backed with 24 cubicles of drama and activity. It’s a captivating innovation for modern, plugged-in theatergoers used to watching multiple screens, browsers, tabs, and windows. The cells are configured to either frame the main scene, so viewers don’t have to squint at tiny figurines parading around up- or down-stage, or flood the set with action on all four levels. 

And that’s just the beginning. Lepage and his design group Ex Machina [2] takes Berlioz’s hybrid work (conceived as a concert piece, not an opera) many steps further. He covers each cubicle in a scrim that, when slid open, becomes a screen on which various architectural and organic video is projected. The video—fragmented and episodic—follows the progress of Berlioz’s music. During a playful flute accompaniment, for example, billowy virtual curtains appear to snap about in the breeze. LaPage worked with Holger Förterer, a German interactive video designer, and Boris Firquet, a French-Canadian image designer to achieve the opera’s high-tech wizardry.

It’s a technical, physical staging with a virtual inferno and mineral-blue skies, acrobats that use one another as counterweights to dance upside down with wild-haired ballerinas, and underwater imagery and ladders that snake vertically up the wall. It creates a beautifully choreographed, fantastical backdrop against which, for example, five Jesuses are crucified and bare-chested men writhe in hell.

Damnation begins with Faust wondering why soldiers, marching backwards and singing about war, experience the happiness he doesn’t. The scene-shift opens to an image of a library with a flat projection of a massive vertical wall of books—impressive enough. Then the projections divide each tier into multiple cubicles for an almost audible “wow” effect. Ironically, suited men then drag decidedly low-tech wooden tables into each cubicle and sit down to study.

Details like these add humor and give the opera a theatrical feel that doesn’t feel like a rush from aria to aria. Neither do the projections steal the show—they’re timed to correspond via computer to performers’ movements, the music, and the libretto, not vice-versa. In Olga Borodina’s aria, for example, her blonde tresses appear to lift into flames, and with each movement, the flames—actually one image multiplied—burn higher and bluer as the tempo speeds up. While the Russian mezzo-soprano has a charismatically earthy voice, it’s the visceral combination of flames and the giant image of her plastered across the scrims that is most arresting. 

Similarly, in part two when the libretto renders, “He strides toward eternal glory,” magnificent blues and reds of stained glass and gothic arches illuminate the set. On the lowest tier, the chorus stands in darkness holding (votive) candles, completing the church metaphor. 

F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News [3], says people like Frank Corsaro with Die Tote Stadt were mixing live action with big media projections at the City Opera 30 years ago. “But back then it was embracing economic reality—it was cheaper to have something on screen than it was to build scenery,” he says. “That’s not why technical solutions are happening in contemporary opera. Technology is being embraced because it’s a way to speak to an audience that’s used to having their imaginations extended.”

Lepage has given us an homage to Gallic inventiveness—the French gave us the photograph (Nicéphore Niépce, 1827), the daguerreotype (Louis Daguerre, 1837), and the cinematograph [4] (Lumière brothers, 1895). Bernard Gilbert, Ex Machina’s production manger, says “Robert uses video and high-tech to tell a story, and here it blends with the story behind the opera because in 19th century France you are at the beginning of photography and images and movement.” In one scene Lepage nods to Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 series of photos taken one thousandth of a second apart, known as The Horse in Motion [5]; Gilbert says this is Lepage’s avant-garde way of deconstructing the story linked to the period when Berlioz wrote the piece. (Berlioz actually composed the work in 1845.) Lepage runs a shadowy image of a horse racing, duplicated 24 times in each cubicle, and adds a theatrical touch: Acrobats join the horses, with each acrobat positioned and moving in a way that suggests he’s riding the horse. 

All of the video is live and interactive except for two clips: an underwater scene shot in a pool and the elephant-size head of Marguerite (Olga Borodina) that fills the screen. The video gets increasingly complex in the ways it captures movement and sound—a row of dead soldiers on ropes drop down from the top into their weeping lovers’ arms. Though the audience can’t see it, infrared lights shine on them, and infrared cameras capture their movements as they climb back up, and the big blades of grass projected onto the scrims shift and move against the weight of their feet. The camera sends a signal via software to the computer, which changes the grassy visuals just around their feet.

It takes four computers to manage the interactive effects. Multiple projectors create one composite image. Between the stage, projectors, and controls, Lepage used a kilometer of fiberoptics. Scene Ethique [6]—known for its high-powered productions for groups like Cirque de Soleil and Celine Dion—built the high-tech set. 

As Lepage said in an interview [7] with the Met, the Damnation is an opportunity to determine the visual language and technologies that will be used the Met’s 2010-2011 production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Will his version of the cherished and controversial Ring outdo the L.A. Opera’s Ring, showcasing this year? One thing we can be sure of, it will be multi-layered. “You have to invite disciplines that are just waiting to express themselves,” said Lepage. “There are other elements just waiting to be thrown into the maelstrom.”