Any director courageous or foolish enough
to stage Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust has to have a
pretty strong idea of how to overcome the gaping dramatic holes in the
work. Too often it’s not the case but,
with audacious brilliance, Terry Gilliam overcomes the problems and then some.
Whether it’s an opera, an oratorio
or “dramatic legend”, and the composer had difficulty making up his mind, the
work offers a host of headaches to anyone taking on the challenge. With a surety of touch that belies his inexperience
as a stage director, Gilliam frames the work in a concept that, while
confounding all expectations, somehow fits perfectly and never feels imposed.
With Mephistopheles as
puppet-master, he takes Faust on a lightning tour through a century of German
history, from Caspar David Friedrich romanticism, through Weimar austerity
(pramloads of dosh exchanged for a loaf of bread) to the horror years of the
most evil period so far known to man.
Tenor Peter Hoare, so brilliant in
A Dog’s Heart earlier in the season, may not seem ideal
casting for Goethe’s yearningly romantic hero but within the concept, his nutty
flame-haired professor is perfect. He’s a
distant cousin to Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, cast here into a fantasy not of
his own making but that of Christopher Purves’s booming Mephisto.
Purves, such a great Beckmesser
for WNO last year, has the jackboot on the other foot this time, unfolding vistas
of history in a picaresque adventure that takes in the First World War, the
rise of Nazism, a wonderfully-executed potted Ring, the 1936
Olympics, Kristallnacht and all that was to follow. Nazis in opera is no new thing but,
extraordinarily, it all resonates perfectly with Berlioz’s libretto.
Some will find the first half of
the show (and this is undoubtedly a show) too busy, too full of fleeting ideas
and sensational visuals for comfort, but it’s a breathtaking and exhilarating ride,
which needs to be seen more than once, so rich is the imagery.
A second half of the same speed
and variety might have been too much but Berlioz slows everything down to an
intimate, domestic level with the introduction of Marguerite, and Gilliam
responds accordingly. Making the object
of Faust’s idealized love (played with rich-toned sincerity by Christine Rice)
Jewish hiding behind a blonde, plaited wig before being carted off in a
cattle truck – something that on paper would have looked a step too far – somehow works.
Not that Gilliam doesn't go too
far for some tastes. Be warned, there
are images that could offend: Faust crucified on a swastika and a final
holocaust image that will exceed the bounds of tastefulness for some, with “Springtime
for Hitler” lurking like an elephant in the room.
Edward Gardner’s thrilling account
of the score is actually enhanced by the inventiveness of Gilliam’s vision and Hildegard
Bechtler’s stunning designs. When Faust
is dragged to hell, after an hilarious and pounding ride in motorbike and
sidecar, the theatre explodes with sights and sound.
On the concert platform, until now
its most effective territory, The Damnation of Faust can
drag a little, despite some of Berlioz’s most beautiful and stirring
music. There’s no danger of that under
Terry Gilliam. ENO may have had to kiss
a few frogs in its pursuit of shoe-horning film directors into opera but it has
finally hit the jackpot with a production that could only have come from a
unique and staggering talent.