Great performance of the production of Hector Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” by the English National Opera (ENO) at the London Coliseum this evening.
“Our production follows the trajectory of German art and history from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century” says the programme.
Berlioz called his piece it a “dramatic legend” rather than an opera and it’s hard to imagine that a traditional production would be satisfactory. Therefore a production directed byTerry Gilliam, the “Mischievous showman” of Monty Python fame, has given us on stage Berlioz’s interpretation of Goethe’s classic poem.
Terry Gilliam’s fame is from television or film and there’s a strong case that this production would look even better as a made for television production or even as a movie. His interpretation has been fairly loose and some tidying up of Berlioz’s score might be a good thing, ie cutting.
There are plenty of design trademarks, for example Mephistopheles’ wraiths wear bowler hats as they dance and some unification of the design in the colours - the devil’s colours are red and black which ties in nicely with the Nazi swastika logo. There's also some deep stuff like using the origins of “The Ballad of the King of Thule” as justification for the inclusion of the Third Reich story.
The big dance numbers stop just short of Mel Brook’s “Springtime for Hitler” for comic or shock value - the Opera Comique in Paris was the only venue Berlioz could afford for the first performances but I hadn’t previously considered this a comic opera.
Christopher Purves sings Mephistopheles as a full-voiced strong bully in contrast to Peter Hoare as Faust who he plays as a lightweight. Unfortunately Berlioz gives neither of great memorable tunes for us to sing on the way home. Christine Rice was a believably seducible Marguerite.
But I’m not sure this new production gives new light or inspiration on this otherwise rarely-staged piece. This is quite clearly Terry Gilliam’s Faust and it’s very welcome as that; but as he’s unlikely to do another one, it’s a shame didn’t find a score with some more memorable tunes!
Terry Gilliam came on stage at the end; I counted five calls: the audience loved his production.
For an operatic interpretation of Goethe’s Faust, I’ll stick with Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele”, premiered in 1868 at La Scala, Milan but now rarely performed in the UK; we did a student production at Nottingham University in the seventies and there's also an excellent recording with Pavarotti as “Mefistofele”.
Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust (fIrst perfomance at the Opéra Comique, Paris, December 1846)
Conductor Edward Gardner
Director Terry Gilliam
Set Designer Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Designer Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer Peter Mumford
Movement Director Leah Hausman
Video Designer Finn Ross
Translator Hugh Macdonald
Faust Peter Hoare
Marguerite Christine Rice
Mephistopheles Christopher Purves