Berlioz and Gilliam fight it out for Faust

Such a lot has already been written about ENO’s The Damnation of Faust, the rather shapeless but lovable piece of Berlioz that has been panel-beaten into a concept by Terry Gilliam.  It was a really good evening at the theatre.  Not sure it did Berlioz very much good, though.

It’s always been a problem, as many have remarked: not an opera, not an oratorio, but a ‘legende dramatique‘.  When composers start inventing new terms for their dramatic – and not so dramatic – works, preparations should be made for an unconventional evening out.  Bühnenweihfestspiel, anyone?

Transposition to the Third Reich (yes, that old wheeze) did not, in itself, do any harm.  Indeed, it created some very moving moments, particularly the setting for Marguerite’s always-powerful D’amour l’ardente flamme as she awaits transportation to the concentration camps.  I thought that the dramaturgy of the whole second half was well-paced, cleverly presented and effective – something that cannot  be entirely attributed to Berlioz, so Gilliam should take some credit there.

It was particularly problematic, however, because the first half had been handled in such a different vein.  The ‘picaresque’ romp through about 150 years of German history, à la Candide, to get us into the Third Reich in time for interval drinks, did no favours to the pacing of the piece.  Berlioz’s construction is slow – sometimes a little painfully slow – as the oratorio style provides characters with ample reflective space.  The lightly comedic touches, such as the Hungarian March being accompanied by a vignette of countries represented by their leaders, falling in and out of love with each other, set the wrong kind of scene for the tragedy that was to unfold later.  The bluntness of some of the earlier transpositions – such as the brownshirt violence in the tavern scene that accompanied the Song of the Rat (or was it flea? anyway…) – also dragged the piece down to too literalist a level for the way in which it subsequently developed.  It was too stop-go and abrupt in its mood-changes to be really successful at fixing the basic problems with staging this particular work, and too often in the first part the action seemed to be working against the musical thread.

In crowded scenes, it was also possible to ‘lose’ characters occasionally, and perhaps a more frequent director of opera might have been more careful about the placing of people in those moments.  I was struck, however, at the confidence and bravado with which Gilliam used the stage space, which seemed in very marked contrast to the tentative, directionless efforts of Mike Figgis’s awful Lucrezia Borgia.  Indeed, the technical accomplishment of the piece was remarkable.  The projections onto the gauze struck me as some of the most effective video effects brought to an opera production in a while.  The Ride to the Abyss, one of my absolute favourite moments in music drama for out-and-out excitement, was timed and delivered incredibly well, with the projections of passing trees morphing into the huge driving wheels of a terrifying steam engine, and ending with an explosion the full height and width of the stage.  It even managed to overcome my reservations about the motorbike/sidecar combo and associated comedy gubbins.

Two performers grapple for the stand-out performance honours: Christine Rice and Christopher Purves.  Her simply ravishing voice wrapped her big aria in plush velvet and delivered it with clarity to the back of the auditorium.  Her bright, engaged acting made a convincing, and touching, play of Gilliam’s concept of the Jewish Marguerite, murdered by the state for her Jewishness rather than the story’s more conventional accidental poisoning of her mother.  As the door was closed on her, she floated out a final note that was pure, haunting and heartbreaking: a magical opera moment.  Purves, looking alarmingly like Kit Hesketh-Harvey, projected a suave Mephistopheles, enjoying the sinister violence and mayhem through which his earthly interventions put the main characters.  Peter Hoare’s voice sounded more constricted, and as though this role didn’t suit it paticularly: his singing failed to give flight to Faust’s lamentations or to the Invocation to Nature in the second part.  Edward Gardner paced judiciously, but the performance lacked some ardour that would have given lift to some of the slower moments and wrenched the focus away from Gilliam’s restless barrage of ideas.   The Ride to the Abyss did deliver, though, and here and throughout the ENO orchestra played strongly, with many details coming through.

So, in summary, a thoroughly-worked production that gave much to ponder, especially in the second part, but which was, ultimately, a set of ideas grafted on to an already problematic work: ideas which sometimes coincided, sometimes diverged from the original piece and its music.  That there aren’t that many entirely successful attempts at staging Damnation – indeed, are there any? – suggests we should welcome any fresh pair of eyes.  It might not go to the top of the list, but it was diverting, moving and dramatic; as, indeed, is Berlioz’s own work.

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