La Damnation de Faust: Berlioz and Video Projection

November 23, 2008
John Relyea and Marcello Giordani

John Relyea and Marcello Giordani

The Met’s new production of Berlioz’s I don’t know what to call it but it’s a masterpiece La Damnation de Faust was broadcast in HD on Saturday Nov 22, 2008. Robert Lepage directed the show making extensive use of computerized video images. Though Berlioz intended the piece to be a concert work, it has been often staged. The Met last staged it in 1907. I saw a theater performance in Berlin about 25 years ago. It didn’t work then and it didn’t work now for a number of reasons.

First it’s made up of episodes from Goethe’s play and presupposes that the viewer knows the play. This is not a problem in the concert hall, but in the opera house the lack of dramatic continuity or development defeats the director no matter how ingenious. Perhaps most important is that Berlioz’ imagination is greater than any director attempting to realize the Frenchman’s transcontinental flights of fancy. Recognizing that cinema might be the best way to stage that which shouldn’t be staged Lepage made extensive use of video projections. Apparently some of the videos were computerized to respond to the movements of the performers. If so there was little discernible impact on the viewer. Some of the images were OK, but many were distracting. The stage is three dimensional, projections are in two and they tended to be off putting.

There were other directorial concepts that were puzzling. Why were the soldiers marching backwards during the Rakoczy March? Why was nothing made of the Ride to the Abyss? Where was the blood falling from the sky and the skeletons by the road? Was Lepage’s computer out of memory? There was also a problem with the video direction. This was the first Met HD performance I’ve seen where the TV director got in the way. There were too many close-ups which prevented a coherent view of all the action that filled the Met’s vast stage. This was an event in a theater. The viewer was supposed to be able to take it all in. The bad direction was a major violation of the Fred Astaire rule. The great dancer insisted that there be no close-ups while he performed; all of him from head to shoe had to be in every frame.

Anyway, The Damnation of Faust is best left to the performers (standing still) and the audience’s imagination. Berlioz’ orchestra is the star of virtually all his work. It’s very difficult to judge its impact from a TV transmission. You really need to hear it live. In an opera house the orchestra is in the pit which in most houses tends to dampen its impact. When Colin Davis directed Faust in 2003 at Carnegie Hall the orchestra was on the stage and swept away the listener with an ocean of sound. I’ve never been a fan of James Levine’s direction of Berlioz, but I don’t think I can adequately judge his leadership of this work from my remote position. The audience seemed to like his performance, but a Met audience will cheer anything from someone it likes. The famous Hungarian March certainly didn’t make any one feel like George Bernard Shaw who upon first hearing it declared that “if it were to last another minute I must charge out and capture Trafalgar Square single handed”.

Marcello Giordani was Faust. He made the most of what is a very difficult role. I thought he sounded a little tired at the start of Part III, but I guess not as he stepped in and sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly the same evening replacing and indisposed colleague. A few pinched high notes aside he was vocally compelling in the title part, though he hardly looked the answer to a maiden’s dreams. Another reason to keep this piece in the concert hall. In passing Faust is a champion of self pity. Where would art be without self pity?

Susan Graham

Susan Graham

Susan Graham sings Marguerite frequently and is obviously comfortable in the role. “D’amour l’ardente flamme” was beautifully sung. Her persona in this production made her look like Laura Bush’s twin sister. The resemblance was startling. Graham was made to climb a ladder to paradise during the “opera’s” final apotheosis. This had the effect of making one worry that she might fall off rather than conveying the heavenly joy of her salvation. Another idea gone astray.

The devil always gets the best part whenever he’s part of a show. Berlioz’ Mephistopheles is confirmation of this show biz truism. John Relyea sporting a hat with two plumes and a codpiece was dashing though a little too short. Vocally he started out with a woolly bass that got a little clearer as the afternoon passed. He didn’t sound as good as he did as Banquo – his previous HD outing.

The chorus has a major role in Faust. They did quite well even if the men had to take their shirts off in the Pandemonium scene. They don’t get paid enough to suffer this indignity. The Ride to the Abyss and the Pandemonium scene did not make the impact in the movie theater that they do live under a gifted conductor. There were also about eight acrobats who at time were suspended by wires attached to their groins – really.

Berlioz would have loved the use of computer graphics. He likely would have incorporated them into the score. But alas he is not around to do it. Nobody else has the imagination to do it now. This work is best left to the mind’s eye.

Doctor Atomic in HD

November 9, 2008

Dr AtomicDoctor Atomic John Adams’ 2005 opera was broadcast today (Nov 8, 2008) in HD. The opera depicts the first atomic explosion in Los Alamos NM in 1945. The libretto by Peter Sellars is a pastiche (crazy quilt might be more accurate) of material written by the opera’s protagonists, Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, John Donne, excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, and who knows what else. The result is a very long opera – three and half hours including a single intermission – that lacks dramatic cohesion and strong character delineation.

Using the first atomic bomb as a subject risks pretension and moralizing. Sellars and Adams try to avoid these perils but they can’t help stumbling on them. As momentous as the Trinity test was the reality is that if J Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues hadn’t introduced atomic weapons to the world’s woes some other J Robert Oppenheimer leading another band of scientists would have. The bomb was in the scientific mix of the 20th century. It was inevitable. No amount of teeth gnashing and hair pulling could forestall the ineluctable bomb. The mind is more deadly than the sword.

Of course this wouldn’t matter if Adams had written a great opera. You can’t judge a new opera by one hearing so I listened to a recording of the Met’s production of this work several times before attending its screening. Thus, I think I had it in my head before attending this performance. With the exception of Oppenheimer’s aria that concludes the first act “Batter my heart, three person’d God” – Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV – and some of the orchestral passages the opera is a yawner. I noticed a number of nappers in the audience, especially in the first act. There were no snoozers at the previous HD broadcasts I attended.

The test of any new opera is would you want to see it more than once. Once is enough for Doctor Atomic. The Met has been filling the seats with sharply discounted tickets. Most of Doctor Atomic is recitative. Not only is there no living composer who knows how to write an opera that demands repeated viewing and listening, there’s none who knows how to write recitative. Listen to the recitatives of the great Italians and you encounter invention and interest. Adams like all his contemporaries writes recitatives which whine and go on and on like an endless sine wave – utterly and predictably boring.

In addition to setting off the bomb there is a second plot involving Oppenheimer’s wife and her Indian maid. It adds little but length to the opera. There’s a “love duet” in the first act which takes place on a bed and ends with Oppenheimer walking out of the room without having done anything but recite a few lines of poetry while his wife throws an object against the wall. This would have been a good spot for a product ad for Viagra. The music for this duet makes no impression. In the second act the maid sings a lullaby (you could only tell it’s a lullaby from its description in the program notes) that sounds like almost everything else in the piece.

The opera concludes with a long count down to the first atomic blast. This goes on for so long that by the time the blast happens – a flash of light and a computerized scream – that any chance of dramatic release is squandered. There are few lines in Japanese about wanting water and the opera end not with a bang but a whimper.

The opera’s original staging was by its librettist Peter Sellars. Apparently Met General manager Peter Gelb was dissatisfied by this production and commissioned Penny Woolcock to do a new staging. He should have saved his money. Ms Woolcock’s production added little to the performance. There were three rows of boxes at the rear of the stage which at times were overlayed with the periodic table of the elements and at others contained people sometimes in contorted positions. There wasn’t a chiropractor credited in the program though I’m sure at least one was needed. At the end of the opera the top row of boxes had choristers dressed as Native Americans. I can think of no reason why the were there. Interestingly their headdresses looked more like those of Wagner’s Valkyries than American Indians.

The performance was better than the score. Baritone Gerald Finley has made a career of portraying Oppenheimer since the opera’s premiere. He made the most of the notes that were handed him and was as convincing as possible. That Oppenheimer’s sense of conflict over what he wrought was not well conveyed was more the composer’s than the baritone’s fault. Though the part lies rather high in the baritone range, Finley had no trouble with this tessitura.

Richard Paul Fink was good a Edward teller though none of the Hungarian physicist’s spookiness was in his portrayal, again not the singer’s doing. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was attractive and sang well in the superfluous part of Kitty Oppenheimer. Eric Owens was appropriately corpulent as the overweight and sometimes overwrought General Leslie Groves. The whole cast acquitted itself as well as possible with the exception of Meredith Arwady who sang the role of the Indian maid Pasqualita. Her sound was rough and she made little of a part that didn’t have much in it to begin with.

Alan Gilbert, whose reward for losing his job as Music Director of the Santa Fe Opera has been the baton at the New York Philharmonic, conducted with power and intensity. He got everything that was in the score from the Met’s superb orchestra. The most interesting parts of the score were those for orchestra alone. Though they sounded just like most of the orchestral pieces Adams has produced over the last several decades. The chorus was as vocally impressive as the orchestra. In summary, another new opera that bombed.

Medicine and Inconvenient Truths

November 5, 2008

Victor Fuchs, a long time deep thinker (no sarcasm intended) about medical economics has a perspective piece in the October 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that presents three “inconvenient truths” about health care. His analysis is likely to represent that which will be applied to medical care over the next several years. Smart and experienced as he is I think he misses the mark.

His first truth is actually understated. Health care, he says, has been rising faster than rest of the economy for 30 years. Actually its closer to 50 years, but the point is indisputable. The toll on our economy of out of control medical costs is ruinous and will only get worse if left unchecked. Fuchs correctly points out that focusing on providing medical insurance to those without it will do nothing to control costs. He further notes that “waste”, “fraud”, and “abuse” seem to be targets immune to attack. In addition to the usual suspects – high administrative costs, insurance companies, and overutilization he observes that reducing costs is so hard because so many middle and low income workers depend on the health care industry for their livelihoods.

He believes that more regulation won’t reduce administrative costs or overutilization. Instead he thinks they’ll increase costs. Here he gets lost a bit because his next truth ends up calling for more regulation. The second “truth” is that technology is the main reason costs are rising so fast. As I’ve mentioned here several times this high cost of technological advances is true only of medical technology. And the reason is that there is no price competition lowering the cost of new technology. Thus electron beam tomography costs $100 a pop while an MRI costs up to 40 times more. Medicare and conventional health insurance cover the latter but not the former. The complexity and sophistication of both technologies is about the same. It’s the presence or absence of insurance which sets the cost. I’ll come back to this later.

How does Fuchs advise we deal with new technology? Establish an organization which will evaluate new technology and make recommendations about whether it should be adopted. If this organization is to be effective it must have regulatory power which he thinks is futile. The contradiction escapes him. Fuchs is opaque as to how such organizations would actually work. Imagine the lobbying that will go on when a new technology comes up for review.

The last truth posits that universal health insurance requires subsidies for the poor or too sick to qualify for traditional health insurance. That it must be compulsory. And that higher taxes will be required to fund health care.

Thus we are still left with high costs, likely even higher than we now have. We need more regulation which Fuchs thinks won’t work while simultaneously thinking that it will. I agree that his truths are inconvenient, but I don’t see how they get us out of the mess we’re in. Using his analysis the only way to control costs will be to ration health care. The only way liberal democracies have succeeded in rationing medical care is by delay. The rich buy their way out of the system while everyone else does the best they can.

Let’s consider a treatment that is medically an unalloyed triumph – cataract surgery. To begin with who gets cataracts? People on Medicare. So who pays for the cost of the surgery? Medicare. Cataract surgery is now a 30 minute outpatient procedure not much different from going to the dentist (provided it’s performed by an ophthalmologist who knows what he’s doing. Likewise you wouldn’t want your teeth worked on by someone not expert at dentistry.) But what does it cost? About $10,000 an eye. So if there are one million patients who get their eyes fixed annually the cost to Medicare is about $20 billion. I don’t know exactly how many patients actually get cataract surgery each year. Use whatever number you like and pro rate the cost to Medicare. Why does it cost so much? The surgeon gets a relatively small fraction of the charge. It’s the outpatient facility that accounts for most of the cost.

This facility, often run by a hospital, operates exactly the way a hospital does. Which is to say that it is over staffed, inefficient, and under no incentive to be frugal. In fact the incentives are all towards waste. The more you can jack your “costs” up the more you’re likely to squeeze out of Medicare. If through a miracle the facility became more efficient Medicare would cut its reimbursement. There is no competition among facilities providing there service. They all receive the same compensation. How can this service paid for by the government be provided at a lower cost? The answer is it can’t.

The only inconvenient truth here is that there is no way that is politically acceptable to cut medical costs. Politics raises costs it never lowers them. The pain has to be a lot worse than it is now before we perform the major surgery required to control costs.

Medical Student Burnout and the Challenge to Patient Care

November 3, 2008

The above is the title of an article in the New York Times. It depicts the emotional trauma endured by its author during her four years in medical school. While her suffering is depicted at length the reason for it is not. It reads as if she were unprepared for the Spanish Inquisition which as usual appeared unexpectedly.

The truth is that medical school was never very hard if you were prepared and really interested in the profession. If you were very smart you didn’t even have to be interested to get through without a lot of effort. Today medical school is even easier.

It’s easier to gain admission, 50% of applicants get accepted, and it’s very hard to flunk out. The long hours of the past have been replaced with much shorter work weeks. In short, medical school today is no harder than any other professional school – law, engineering, dentistry,etc.

If being a medical student makes you a bowl of quivering jello you’ve picked the wrong profession and should seek the right one. I don’t see any connection between medical student burnout and poor patient care. The issue is a straw man