Published: 12 May, 2011
by SEBASTIAN TAYLOR
MORE than living up to expectations, Terry Gilliam’s production of The Damnation of Faust at the English National Opera succeeds in turning Berlioz’s masterpiece into an outstanding musical performance. At turns, it’s phantasmagorical and plain daft. But it’s only saved from becoming cliché-ridden sick farce by stunning singing of Berlioz’s great songlines.
There’s not much opera in Berlioz’s Faust and it’s usually performed in the concert hall. Berlioz himself admitted as much, calling it a “dramatic legend”. But the absence of detailed plot has provided Gilliam with freedom to let his fevered imagination run riot.
Spread over two acts is a view of life in Germany over 100 years from the mid-19th century to the Holocaust. First, we get the journey of Faust and Mephistopheles through the mythical German mountain landscapes, the battle for power in Europe and bodies hurled into the air as shells fall on trenches in the First World War. It’s often Pythonesque, even when Brown Shirts sing an anti-Communist diatribe.
The second half belongs the Faust/ Marguarite love story set against the backdrop of the Nazi storm-troupers, Kristallnacht and the round-up of Jews to be loaded on to the goods trains.
All this could so easily have turned into another “Springtime for Hitler” farce. That it becomes terrifying storytelling instead is down to some excellent singing of Berlioz’s music. Peter Hoare is appropriately deluded as the fuzzy scientist Faust and Christopher Purves sings Mephistopheles with satanic confidence, summoning up the spirits to bring on the Nazis.
But it’s mezzo soprano Christine Rice singing Marguerite to perfection who turns Gilliam’s Faust into such a powerful production. She sings Berlioz’s song of lost love, loneliness and dejection among the luggage of Jews waiting to be loaded onto the goods trains.
It’s unbearable, because you know she’s singing for the millions destined for the concentration camps.
And when the angels summon her from the camp’s mass graveyard, you know they’re also summoning all those who perished in the Holocaust.
• Eight more performances till June 7, English National Opera, Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC2, 0871 911 0200, www.eno.org