The Damnation of Faust

Coliseum, 20 July 2011

English National Opera, 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 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 could lead to a disjointedness in the production but Gilliam’s vivid creativity and thoughtful scene transitions 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.

The production demonstrates the potential benefits of using a director schooled in film-making. Considerable thought has been given to the visuals and how they will work best alongside the music. It makes a change to see a production where every inch of the visible stage has been given a purpose, no mean feat on a stage the size of the Coliseum, rather than the more traditional approach of allowing for areas of dead space outside of the action.

The hand of a film director may also be seen in the understanding shown of the potential power of the projected image, often mishandled by directors who are used to directing for stage. Projections work to underpin the music and work alongside the actors rather than dominating and distracting from the action. The most stunning use is at the climax of the play; Faust descending into hell. Chasing after Marguerite in order save her from the horrors of the WWII concentration camps, Faust and Mephistopheles are shown racing against a projected German forest; as the scenery races past it effortlessly morphs into rampant German industrialisation, the forests and trees blending into aeroplanes and trains, all the time keeping pace with the music as it builds to its furious climax. The audience is catapulted through the action, as if they had joined Faust on the bike. At its crescendo a mixture of live and projected explosions cause complete disorientation, it becomes impossible to separate live-action from projected-image, German countryside from hellish scenery and the descent into hell becomes a living, breathing nightmare.

It is to the credit to all those involved that it never veers into pastiche. We see familiar scenes; the WW1 battlefield, the Nazi beer cellar and the trains to concentration camps, and there is always the risk that its handling could be seen as exploitative of a series of events that ultimately led to the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Those charges will always be levelled at those who wish to tackle the subject of the holocaust in art but Gilliam handles it with sensitivity and the scene in the beer cellar, where the casual violence and terror found in everyday men wearing Nazi uniforms contains the same power that can be seen Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The final scene, Marguerite’s salvation, is breathtaking in its audacity and power. Sung whilst lying on a pile of concentration camp victims, it is both a beautiful piece of music from Berlioz but also a powerful final statement from Gilliam on the horror of the holocaust as well as the power of individual sacrifice.

The Damnation of Faust is a remarkable production and Gilliam has transferred seamlessly into the world of opera whilst showing it is possible to do justice to Berlioz’ work. In a notoriously difficult world Gilliam has directed a piece of rare power to both critical and audience acclaim. He may not be suitable for everything he would like to set his fertile mind to but there is no doubt that many people will be waiting his next project with a great deal of interest.

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