In 1827, a 24 year-old Frenchman named Hector Berlioz attended a production of Hamlet. He spoke no English but was mesmerized by the play and the event started a lifelong relationship with Shakespeare, the stage, and even the actress portraying the melancholy Dane that day, who he would marry 6 years later. Berlioz-s life, as this anecdote indicates, was highly theatrical; however, his name and music are not equated with the theater, in the same way that Bizet, Offenbach and the other19th century French composers of musical dramas.
The reason for this is Berlioz never wrote a big accessible hit, like Carmen or Orpheus in the Underworld, and what he did write was too long or complicated to easily stage. However, this year marks the bi-centennial of Berlioz-s birth, and opera companies around the world are bringing even his most difficult works back into theaters. Los Angeles Opera is taking part of this celebration by introducing a new production of The Damnation of Faust.
Interestingly, Berlioz-s Faust was not written for the stage, but rather as a -concert opera.- For over a hundred years, this kept the work-despite a famous story, short running time and some very hummable tunes-from ever becoming a staple of the operatic repertory. However, in recent years, with the rise of -director-s theater- in Europe, the work-s classic archetypes and lack of stage directions are attracting directors who wish to use Berlioz-s concert opera as a blank canvas for radical stage interpretations.
One such director is Achim Freyer, a German director who seems especially drawn to staging works not written for the stage. Last January, LA Opera presented Freyer-s staging of Bach-s Mass in B-Minor. The results were not favorable, as it prompted jeers from the normally sedate Angeleno audience. But this year, the opening night crowd was all cheers as Freyer-s admittedly bizarre sets, costumes, and acting troupe deliver a haunting and unique stage experience.
There is so much that is strange in this production that it truly defies description-if one has to try, imagine Dante-s Inferno interpreted by silent film pioneer George M-li-s. Or perhaps a Friedrich painting remade by Dubuffet. There are soliders in white-faced clown make-up carrying 2x4-s instead of guns, violin playing birds, and a giant black poodle--and that-s just Act One.
The production may not be for everyone-s taste. No doubt some will think that Faust-s study should consist of bookshelves, a fireplace, and a professor-s desk instead of merely a skull and giant Ikea lamp (which also doubles as a flying machine). But theatergoers here in Los Angeles should appreciate the work that LA Opera is bringing to the stage. Opera is too often a place where drama and stagecraft are relegated to the background. Freyer-s work, combined with last season-s "Tron- Giovanni and the upcoming Robert Wilson staging of Madama Butterfly proves that Los Angeles Opera is not afraid of opera as a theatrical, as well as vocal, art form.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk on KCRW.