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A CurtainUp London Review
The Damnation of Faust
The ENO programme tells us how Berlioz wrote The Damnation of Faust, developing it from an earlier work, Eight Scenes From Faust in which he had set to music scenes from Goethe's novel which he had read in translation and which he was unable to put down. Berlioz rounded up the first copies of The Damnation of Faust, after he had decided it was crude and badly written, and destroyed them. However in his lifetime Berlioz was very disappointed by the public reaction to his later version of Faust after he didn't attract star singers and so, despite all the effort and work, the opera was met with indifference.
What Gilliam has done is to structure the Faust into the twentieth century history of modern Germany from the First World War through the Weimar Republic to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. Opening and closing the production we have shock red haired Faust (Peter Hoare) the scientist glorying in the wonders of Nature but carrying on his back the burden of a huge box which unfolds into blackboards on which to chalk scribble his equations. Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves) in smooth evening dress narrates and observes as, in a celebration of May day Faust is chosen to be the knight of the May Queen but instead of belonging he becomes the laughing stock.
To the famous Hungarian march we see Europe being divided by the Crown Heads, mounted on horses and with wonderful feathered headdresses and permanently furled national flags and this politicking ends with the disaster of millions of dead soldiers in the muddy trenches of the First World War. Faust is suicidal but Mephistopheles conjures up a field hospital from a ruined church and Faust finds a purpose in his life as he assists in operations. Mephistopheles offers to show Faust a world of fulfilment and the realisation of his secret dreams and Faust accepts.
Mephistopheles takes Faust to a Bierkeller in the Weimar Republic where the Nazi brown shirts are increasing in numbers. Mephistopheles performs an anti-Semitic cabaret number and Faust leaves in disgust but Mephistopheles sends him to sleep and he awakes in a Nazi high command party and catches sight of a beautiful young woman who may be Marguerite (Christine Rice). The entertainment put on for the guests is a Wagnerian extract with water nymphs and Valkyries. Mephistopheles instructs Faust to keep his bargain if he wants to possess Marguerite. Faust is caught in Hitler's rise to power with the scrolling of Leni Riefenstahl's spectacular films celebrating Teutonic military strength, culture and athleticism.
While Faust has a rendezvous in Marguerite's bedroom where she sings the ballad "The King of Thule", the events of Kristallnacht are visited on the Jewish owned shops and businesses in the area. Mephistopheles rescues Faust but Marguerite is arrested and goes in the transportation train to the death camps. Faust turns once more to his work but Mephistopheles persuades him to join him on the pretext that he can rescue Marguerite from imprisonment. A desperate motorcycle ride takes Faust, not to Marguerite but to the fiery depths of Hell.
Each of these scenes forms such spectacular and epic visuals that it will be impossible in future to hear Berlioz's music and for it not to evoke Gilliam and Hildegarde Bechtler's outstanding design. It is undoubtedly the images which convey Gilliam's prodigious imagination. The motorcycle ride is carried out by a changing, moving backdrop of tall trees and the rider's white scarf being held as if blowing in the wind completes the illusion and the effect is excitement and anticipation. The posturing and colourful costumes of the first world war aggressors turns quickly to deaths in the grey-brown mud, one colour, piles of bodies and those remaining alive becoming aliens by the wearing of gas masks. The Aryan athletes line up with sculpted yellow paper hair, stylised and pastiche in front of the Riefenstahl iconic images. Who could forget the enormous cake of the map of Europe being divided up in the lead up to the First World War?
Christopher Purves' gloating and plotting Mephistopheles has the best of the characterisation but Christine Rice's Marguerite is sweet and I liked the vague enquiry of our red haired surveyor of Nature, Peter Hoare as Faust, always a little out of his depth.
But this Faust is a stunning visual feast!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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