Just enough Sturm und just enough Drang

The Damnation of Faust – English National Opera, Coliseum, 20 July 2011

3 Performances left before Tuesday 07 June

Reputedly when Hector Berlioz saw the first productions of The Damnation of Faust he concluded that it was impossible to stage as the production techniques of the time could not bring the drama to life. Had the risks of selling your soul to the devil not been made abundantly clear then I might have been sorely tempted to offer much in return for Berlioz being able to witness what happens when thoroughly 21st century technology is let loose on it. It is hard to believe that he would not be impressed with the result.

Some critics expressed surprise that the ENO would take a risk on Gilliam but it has hard to think of a film director who might be better suited to the demands of opera. A man often regarded as holding cinema’s most rampant, if occasionally incoherent, imagination seems like an ideal choice for a medium where the audience’s suspension of disbelief is often asked to hang off the smallest threads. His films demonstrate that he never lacks for ideas even if it does occasionally comes at the expense of a coherent narrative; The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus gave the sensation of being fed a succession of amuse-bouches, each one a delicate and delightful treat but in the end never providing the satisfaction gained by a well-planned three-course dinner.

However this approach makes Gilliam well suited to Berlioz’ Faust, a piece often described as a series of musical sketches rather than fully-fledged opera. It flits between styles and scenes in a manner that gives Gilliam free license to let his magpie approach to directing run riot. There is no unifying directorial style in the production but instead the audience are led, by Faust and Mephistopheles, through a history of unified Germany up to World War II; Faust’s final descent into hell appearing inextricably linked to a nation bent on following a similar path.

Gilliam, without forgetting the credit that is due to the brilliance of Hildegard Bechtler designs, has created an unforgettable masterpiece that creates substance out of style. Each scene is unique and can stand alone from the rest of the production; this leads to a potential disjointedness in the production but Gilliam’s vivid creativity and thoughtful transitions between scenes means the audience is not allowed to rest and are continually drawn into the immediacy of the production, senses overwhelmed by a panoply of sound and image.  Continue reading here.

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