OPERA / The battle of Berlioz: Edward Seckerson reviews The Damnation of Faust

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The Independent Culture
From our seats in the Covent Garden auditorium we gazed into the shell of another auditorium, once grand, now decayed, the dark side of a mirror-image. At a stroke, we were no longer just observers but participants in this 'theatre of the imagination'. A neat twist to the age-old dilemma - to stage or not to stage The Damnation of Faust. The very first image of Harry Kupfer's production sees the ageing Faust bursting through the auditorium doors; a blizzard rages outside. He seeks solace in the winter of his life, he seeks refuge in illusion, reality in fantasy. Trees begin to grow, a stream flows at his feet. But the trees are painted gauzes and the stream merely a blue cloth. Ghostly forms have begun gathering in the tiered boxes around him. Phantoms of the opera. His delusions have begun. And so have ours.

The idea is a good one; the realisation, alas, runs away with its creators. Kupfer is nothing if not a maestro of theatricality - his panache is always hard to resist. But this time the outcome is a losing battle for Berlioz. Barely a phrase goes by that is not visualised, enacted. Sometimes Kupfer hits the mark, sometimes he's well wide of it. This Faust's only reality is a series of Lurex dreams: salvation is celestial bliss Fellini-style replete with clouds of gaudy fairground lights; his vision of war brings on the Hungarian March in a kitsch operetta extravaganza - a riot of sequined flags and chocolate-box hussars, the mother of them all imagined as a gigantic puppet firing indiscriminately.

Kupfer is never one to let irony escape him. In that respect he's more than a match for Berlioz. The most ingenious aspect of this production is the way in which Mephistopheles - suave Samuel Ramey in a pin-stripe frock-coat - dupes Faust with his own fantasies. Nothing is quite what it seems - even the illusions are illusions, bluff and double-bluff: the underworld is inhabited by whores with prosthetic torsos; nature, Faust's refuge, is a pathetic papier mache rock; Marguerite, object of all his desires, is a doll.

And so on. But rarely can so talented a director have so consistently upstaged himself. Were it not for Sir Colin Davis's determined, characteristically muscular direction, Berlioz too might have succumbed. It would still have been nice to have savoured the Will o' the Wisps minuet without Kupfer's troupe of nightshirted neighbours in sub-Gang Show formation, or the 'Ride to the Abyss' without the ludicrous flying circus. The overworked chorus really had their work cut out getting the music across through all the business and all the masks. Poor Roderick Earle's Brander disappeared under his, and so did his unsavoury 'Rat Song'. Samuel Ramey was, as ever, a pleasure both for his presence and the quality of his dark legatos, and expectations could not have been higher for Olga Borodina. She took a while to settle into the first of her two ravishing arias (unease reflected in the intonation), but if tone and phrasing were sometimes less than generous (the poor creature is ensnared in ropes for D'amour l'ardente flamme), the candour of her singing was refreshing. So too with Jerry Hadley's Faust. He didn't always find the support for his more ecstatic flights, but he breathed the pure air of his aria on the threshold of Marguerite's dolls' house with great sensitivity and lovely head- tone. At the close of the show, all that is left of his hopes and aspirations is an old gramophone. But surely Kupfer was not suggesting at this late stage that some things are best heard and not seen?

In rep until 25 March at the Royal Opera House (071-240 1066)