The Metropolitan Opera didn’t mean to put on concert performances of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” this winter. But the company can learn from its mistake.
When it announced its 2019-20 season last year, the Met had programmed a run of Robert Lepage’s video-filled “Damnation” production, which premiered in 2008 as a kind of trial for his “Ring” cycle, then on the horizon. But in June, because of “unanticipated technical demands,” seven staged Berlioz performances became four unstaged ones, through Feb. 8.
From its premiere, in 1846, its composer was resigned to this fantastical work — a “légende dramatique,” he called it, not quite an opera or an oratorio — being played in concert rather than in full production. The Met has tried it both ways over the years. Even if the audience on Saturday afternoon didn’t get Mr. Lepage’s “Hollywood Squares” grid of screens, the company’s enjoyable performance wasn’t untrue to Berlioz’s vision, or at least his expectations.
And, for me, it pointed to a way the Met could buttress its current slate of offerings. Opera companies around the world make a habit of presenting works in concert. It’s a way of expanding their repertoires, and exploring the tastes and specialties of their most valuable singers and conductors, without expending the resources required by full productions.
One of my most memorable opera-going experiences was a concert “Parsifal” presented by the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2013, with the conductor Thomas Hengelbrock experimenting with an orchestra using historical instruments. Without a staging, the performance focused squarely on Wagner’s innovative instrumental sonorities; it was a revelation made possible by the pared-down format.
Why can’t the Met do things like this? For years, Opera Orchestra of New York made a specialty of star-driven concert performances, often of rarities. It’s a space the Met could also inhabit, or at least dip its toe into. When Anna Netrebko was singing in Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” in Europe a few years ago, Met audiences should have at least been able to hear her, the company’s leading prima donna, do it in concert.
Rameau, Lully, Vivaldi: The glory of early music could finally ring at the Met without the pressure and expense of full stagings. Ditto Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise,” a late-20th-century classic still unheard in this city.
In my dreams, then, this “Damnation” is the start of an ongoing series. It would make an auspicious beginning. On Saturday, Edward Gardner led an even-keeled, crisply played performance that succeeded going for poise over fire. The chorus, integral to this work, was spirited; though, not for the first time recently, I wanted a little more bite, urgency and polish from this all-too-overextended ensemble.
Hardly the traditional innocent, Elina Garanca was a strikingly mature and confident Marguerite, serenely floating across the stage. Her mezzo-soprano, a pearl-smooth column of silvery sound that soars into the theater like a laser, remains one of the most coolly luxurious voices in opera. Ildar Abdrazakov brought understated spirit to Méphistophélès.
After the tenor Bryan Hymel’s slew of cancellations in recent years, it was wonderful to have him back on the Met stage, and in excellent voice, as Faust. The texture of his sound is gentle but its presence powerful, sustained through long, calm legato lines. But Michael Spyres, who makes a belated Met debut in the final two performances, is hardly the J.V. team; among his Berliozian bona fides is a superbly sensitive “Damnation de Faust” recording released just a few months ago.
This performance wasn’t what the Met had been hoping for. But it can serve as a model.
La Damnation de Faust
Through Feb. 8 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.