Monday, May 09, 2011


Here you go. My Faust review for the Independent.

English National Opera, 6 May 2011

Review by Jessica Duchen (for The Independent)

Poor old Berlioz. The moment Terry Gilliam was announced as director
of this new ENO staging, it was obvious that the composer would
scarcely get a look in, at least in advance. It’s the first venture
into opera (in a co-production with De Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp) for the
former Monty Python animator and director of such legendary movies as
Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King. The question, of course,
was: could this operatic novice deliver in a field where so many other
film supremos have fallen flat on their faces?

Well, in certain ways Berlioz doesn’t get a look in in the finished
version either, since Gilliam has elected to take us through a journey
through German history, all the way from Romanticism – the red-haired
Faust himself is straight out of that famed Caspar David Friedrich
painting – to…you guessed it, Marguerite rises to heaven from
Auschwitz. It’s not so much Monty Python as The Producers, so full is
the show of camp, dancing, exercising Nazis. Springtime for Terry and
Berlioz, anyone? But Python fans will be glad to know that close to
the start we do get a glimpse of something much resembling the Knights
that say Ni.

Berlioz’s Faust is a challenge at the best of times – it’s not even
opera, strictly speaking, but in the composer’s terminology a ‘légende
dramatique’, part cantata, part opera and possibly as ill-suited to
the stage as Goethe’s ‘closet drama’ (a deliberately unstageable play)
that inspired it. But Berlioz, Gilliam and the character of
Mephistopheles, the devil, have two great things in common: a vast
imagination and a sense of unbounded mischief that means breaking all
the rules, including ‘avoid cliché’; Gilliam seems to have elected to
do the latter so spectacularly that it floors everyone anyway. At
least sometimes.

When it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. After all, the Nazis had
nothing whatsoever to do with Berlioz, who wrote this magnificent work
back in 1846, let alone Goethe. Yet the best moments are stunning.
Having spent most of the first half thinking “When are we ever going
to grow up and get past putting the Nazis into  opera?” by the end of
the evening this critic was shaken and profoundly moved.

All credit to ENO for pulling it off. It’s a phenomenally slick,
complex show of many components and brilliant theatrical effects:
Faust and Mephisto’s motorbike ride to the gates of hell, dodging
“birds” that are aircraft dropping bombs, Faust’s entry to – and exit
from – hell itself, and the chilling transformation in Act I of the
songs of the Rat and the Flea into anti-Semitic cabaret horrors. And
there’s a brilliant moment at which Gilliam literally turns back time:
the precision of its execution alone would have been astounding even
if it hadn’t happened to work conceptually.

Gilliam’s not-so-secret weapons are his Mephistopheles, Christopher
Purves at his  most charismatic, infallible and infinitely nuanced;
and, as Marguerite Oppenheim (yes, really), the glorious Christine
Rice, whose rich yet pure mezzo - and aching calls of ‘Alas’ as she is
herded into the cattle truck - suits this music to perfection. Peter
Hoare as Faust performed strongly in the first act, though the start
of Act II found him suffering in the high notes and somewhat losing
his stride for a short while thereafter. The orchestra and chorus were
on fabulous form under Ed Gardner’s baton.