“I just need you to sign this old piece of paper…”
Continuing their sourcing of directors better known in other artistic fields, ENO now feature the operatic directing debut of renowned actor, screenwriter and filmmaker Terry Gilliam with a new production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Not strictly speaking an opera, but rather a ‘dramatic legend’ as it was originally composed as a concert score, this has allowed Gilliam’s imagination to run wild but working with his surreal vision is designer Hildegard Bechtler in an unlikely combination.
Berlioz’s story is based on Goethe’s original dramatic poem but takes its own route through the story of the lengths a man will go to when tempted by the Devil with promises of youth, knowledge and finally love. The ultimate price paid for Faust’s inability to resist temptation is a most tragic one in this morality tale, which in Gilliam’s major innovation, has been located in Germany, tracing a period from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and so follows the history and indeed the art of that country. So the backdrop to Faust’s dilemmas are scenes like Bismarck negotiating pre-World War I alliances; bloodied battlefields from the Great War; Brown Shirts drinking in a Weimar bierkeller; Berchtesgaden; Kristallnacht; Auschwitz…
It is a template that largely fits well onto the overarching story without having to twist anything to make it work, apart from one major plot device, and allows for some starkly effective imagery: the company become gymnastic, blond-haired Aryan youths at one point, jack-booted vicious soldiers the next, and the swastika of course is powerfully deployed on a number of occasions. Finn Ross’ video design is well-incorporated into the production to allow swift, effective and atmospheric changes of location as Faust is led unwittingly on his journey. The tendency towards giant spectacle though means that several scenes are overstuffed, Giliam’s ambition seemingly untrammelled in the pursuit of his vision. Consequently other aspects which need more attention in what is acknowledged to be a difficult piece, like the occasional longueurs in the music which lack purpose or the whipping into shape of the chorus, both vocally in a couple of places and physically – as in a scene when they are meant to be portraying Nazi stormtroopers, they currently evoke a greater comparison to Dad’s Army – are left lacking.
At times, the music is battling against everything else that is happening onstage but when it is allowed in the limelight, it really does shine. The best of the singers is Christopher Purves, making his role debut as Mephistopheles, the self-confessed puppet master whose machinations whether from the sidelines in an easy chair or in the thick of the action with a debonair charm doffing his hat to all and sundry, are never less than crystal clear as he sings with a great precision throughout and is devilishly good fun. Christine Rice has two pretty songs as the doomed Marguerite which she fills with beautiful colour and Peter Hoare is just great fun as the heavily Shockheaded Peter-inspired Faust, vocally a little thin at times but extremely charismatic and listenable.
But my uneasiness at the staging was something that grew as the show progressed. I’m not entirely sure why I was so sensitive to the suggestion that the rise of the Nazi party and grooming of Hitler as leader was due to the machinations of Mephistopheles rather than the human race just acting at its very worst with outside help: with a story that punishes an individual for the choices he makes, there’s something difficult about the skimming over of the decisions made by the Nazis and passing them off as devilish intervention. But I found it harder to accept the events of Kristallnacht just being passed off as a distraction caused by his minions in order to get Marguerite out of the picture. The worst offender though was the final scene where the chorus sang a beautiful number, exalting her dead body to Heaven, but in this production she has been shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the chorus are actually singing to a pile of dead bodies of which Marguerite’s is the uppermost. I found it a hugely crass piece of staging if only for the suggestion that she was the only soul being sent up to Heaven despite being just one of the many thousands that had just been killed. This was such a distraction to me that I barely heard the music which was a real shame as it was a very moving piece.
There’s no doubting that The Damnation of Faust is excellently sung, attractively played and visually spectacular, but too often it is excessively so as far as the last is concerned. It is Gilliam’s artistic vision which is predominantly being served here, whether you find it insensitive or not, to overkill: the frantically posturing Hitler on his little podium in the penultimate scene in the fiery Hell being the perfect example here, completely unnecessary. Not everyone will find this as controversial as I, but I do think it raises serious questions.