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.

Feature: Should Nazis be Banned from the Opera House?

- Simon Thomas