The Damnation of Faust, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2011

This is ostensibly a French opera sung in English, though it’s not really an opera but a légende dramatique by Hector Berlioz — a musical and vocal canvas on which a clever director can paint his own picture. And this is exactly what Terry Gilliam does by turning the whole thing into a history about the rise of Nazism in Germany from World War I to its expression in the violent anti-Semitism of 1930s and eventually the death camps of World War II.

Faust and Mephistopheles in the cube, all images Tristram Kenton

It all starts with a spoken prologue by Mephistopheles in which he talks about the desire to unlock the secrets of life saying, “there will always be a Faust”. Referring to a struggle, he then intones “My struggle translates in German as Mein Kampf“. This obvious reference to Hitler out of the way, he then seats himself stage left as Faust with his spiky orange hair hikes in the mountains carrying a massive cubical burden from which he opens out a large chalk-board replete with mathematical mumbo jumbo. He then meets Teutonic figures from German myth, but this is all just prologue, and as we watch Gilliam’s story unfold we are presented with one clever stage idea after another. For example towards the end, when Faust and Mephistopheles ride off on black horses to save Marguerite — who in this production has been transported to one of the death camps — they ride a World War II motorbike and sidecar, appearing to race across the front of the stage as the night-time scenery flashes past behind them. In the meantime we have been presented with high and low points from German history in the 1930s: the callous brutality of the brown shirts, the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin with Leni Reifenstahl’s wonderful moving images of divers, the yellow stars for Jews, the horror of Kristallnacht in November 1938, and the transportation of Jews to concentration camps.

The journey to save Marguerite

In case this all seems too much, Gilliam dilutes it with comedy and choreographic invention worthy of a musical, as the blond athletes move in formation and sing in Latin, and the brown shirts perform at one point as if in an operetta. Peter Hoare’s Faust, with his high tenor voice, is costumed as one of them, but always with that frightful orange hair, looking rather like the dog-man he portrayed so well in the ENO’s Dog’s Heart late last year. Christopher Purves by contrast was a commanding Mephistopheles with his sonorous baritone and superb stage presence, and Christine Rice was a beautifully voiced Marguerite. The relatively small part of the student Brander, another brown shirt, was well sung by Nicholas Folwell. Musically this was wonderful, with inspired playing by the orchestra under the direction of Edward Gardner.

The sets by Hildgard Bechtler ranged from open air romanticism of a style to suit Der Freischütz, to utilitarian buildings and their interiors, all superbly lit by Peter Mumford. Good costumes by Katrina Lindsay and clever video designs by Finn Ross helped make this a remarkable staging, yet I feel discomforted by the huge range of production ideas, and wonder if it isn’t all a bit self-indulgent.

Faust and Marguerite fearing crowds outside

Of course, as a musical creation by Berlioz this is not exactly an opera, but more like a cantata, and it failed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1846 during its first performances. Only in 1893 was it successfully staged in Monte Carlo, and now Terry Gilliam has created it anew, using Berlioz’s wonderful music to tell the story of where German Romanticism and idealism took a badly wrong turn, leading to one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.

Performances continue until June 7 — for more details click here.

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