Saturday, 7 May 2011

La Damnation de Faust, English National Opera, 6 May 2011

The Coliseum

(sung in English, as The Damnation of Faust)

All images: Tristram Kenton
As usual, click images to enlarge.

Faust – Peter Hoare
Marguerite – Christine Rice
Mephistopheles – Christopher Purves
Brander – Nicholas Folwell
Soprano solo – Ella Kirkpatrick

Terry Gilliam (director)
Hildegard Bechtler (set designs)
Katrina Lindsay (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Leah Hausman (associate director)
Finn Ross (video)

This was, I am afraid, a self-congratulatory car-crash, from beginning to end. Alarm bells rang when opening the programme to reveal images from the Third Reich. Still louder did they ring when perusing an interview between director Terry Gilliam and Edward Seckerson, in which the former’s grasp of German history was revealed to be at best shaky. Take this passage on the origins of the First World War: ‘The Prussians’ mentality overwhelmed the Romantic side, except the Romantic side was always there in the people.’ The most telling sentence, however was the following: ‘I could have approached The Damnation of Faust by reading a great deal about Berlioz but I avoided that.’ Why bother with Berlioz when one can have Gilliam instead?

So far, so bad, but good things can sometimes come from conceptions that do not necessarily deserve them. Not in this case, alas, for what we have is a (car-)crash course in German history according to Gilliam. Having Faust consider Nature and her renewal in a Caspar David Friedrich landscape (Hildegard Bechtler’s designs were throughout impeccable, when judged on their own merits) is not a bad idea at all, worryingly hackneyed though some of those wondrous Friedrich images have become. (I fear a favourite painter may be going the same way as Klimt or Monet: perhaps it is time for a break.) But all that happens thereafter is a series of irrelevant settings that initially speed through history chronologically – the Marche hongroise a dance for Archduke Franz Ferdinand and moustachioed military men from other nations! – before seemingly becoming stuck in the Third Reich. At the initial rate of change, I wondered whether all might culminate in a panegyric to the euro or Angela Merkel’s apotheosis as vision of the Goethian ‘eternal-feminine’. But no, Gilliam clearly always wanted to be in the Third Reich, and doggedly remains there.

It might have worked, but there is barely even an attempt to make the Nazi ‘entertainment’ – and that, I am afraid is very much how it comes across – connect with the work allegedly being staged. In a brief prologue, Mephistopheles informs us that ‘my struggle can be translated as mein Kampf’. You don’t say? If that is as Faustian as one can render the Third Reich, one might as well give up immediately. Incomprehensibly, large sections of the audience dissolved into hysterical laughter: is translation of a simple phrase really that hilarious? Presumably these were the same people who awarded the director an ecstatic ovation at the end: fans of Terry Gilliam, it would seem, rather than people who might have an interest in La damnation de Faust. Auerbachs Keller sports a poster of Lenin, torn down by brown shirts (of whom Brander is one). The flea song is for some reason treated as anti-Semitic propaganda. (Perhaps, again, it might have been made to work, but it is difficult to discern any attempt.) Berchtesgaden appears and later re-appears. For some reason, out-of-date (even for 1930s Bayreuth) images of Siegfried and Brünnhilde are enacted at a cocktail party; Faust beds down with Brünnhilde. According to Gilliam, ‘I knew I had to have Wagner in the production somewhere: so in the narrative we go to Berchtesgaden.’ Further comment seems superfluous; in any case we have swiftly moved on to a racist depiction of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which the athletes sport blond (Aryan, you see) wigs. 'Marguerite Oppenheimer' is Jewish, for no apparent reason; her menorah-lit night with Faust takes place against the backdrop of Kristallnacht. Again, Bechtler’s sets are powerful indeed: if only they could have been used for another production, preferably of another work. Jews are deported, Marguerite amongst them. Video trickery that draws attention to itself – however finely accomplished – whisks Faust and Mephistopheles off to a final scene of scarlet kitsch. (That may be partly Goethe's fault: how tiresome Gretchen is, and how relieved one is by her absence from Busoni's Doktor Faust! Nevertheless, the idea that redemption is somehow present in a Holocaust setting is problematical, to say the least.)

I am in no sense opposed to operatic, or other, productions that deal with the period in question, though I should have thought that there were more obvious candidates amongst works than La damnation de Faust. Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal stands, in my experience, in a class of its own, but I was also greatly enlightened by the Cologne Opera’s Capriccio, a powerful production that engaged with the work and its creation (click here to read some related thoughts upon Strauss, with interesting discussion in the comments below). This, however, does no such thing. It veers dangerously close to Springtime for Hitler, albeit without the jokes (or at least the genuine comedy). One could do the same thing with equal justice, or injustice, with or to pretty much any other work, since there is no discernible attempt to engage with Berlioz; it might as well be a Third Reich Barber of Seville. It simply came across as an unholy marriage between a desire to put some Nazi costumes on stage and a racial slur against the Germans, without even a degree of thought having been put into the latter. When Friedrich Meinecke spoke of the ‘German catastrophe’, I do not think it was this sort of catastrophe that he had in mind.

I have said nothing yet about the music, which, sad to say, reflects the apparent priorities of the evening. Berlioz’s score was apparently reduced to the status of a film track to an entirely different drama, such as it was. It was not helped by often lacklustre conducting by Edward Gardner. Gardner’s initially downright insipid reading seemed relatively invigorated after the interval, but Berlioz’s extraordinary nervous energy often went for nothing, sounding closer to Massenet than Berlioz as we have come to know him from a conductor such as Sir Colin Davis. The ENO Orchestra was, however, on very good form, when considered apart from its direction, likewise the choral forces amassed. Christopher Purves’s Mephistopheles stood out amongst the singers. Purves exhibited strong stage presence and, with the odd exception, equally fine vocal presence. Peter Hoare seemed to be trying his best as Faust, but was hamstrung both by his too-youthful-mad-scientist look, and by miscasting. He often struggled, especially at the upper reaches of the range; memories of Nicolai Gedda did not help. Christine Rice proved a solid enough Marguerite, though she could not conceal what was lost by translation into English. (If it must be done, it might as well be done by a Berlioz scholar such as Hugh Macdonald, though I was surprised at the number of forced rhymes: ‘tender’, ‘surrender’, and ‘splendour’, for instance.)

Whether Berlioz’s légende dramatique was a wise choice to stage at all might have seemed more of a question with a more convincing staging. There are, after all, three operas by the composer, but ENO is not alone in its curious desire to stage works that were never intended to be staged. ENO’s own recent Messiah springs to mind. Sometimes that can work; here, alas, Berlioz was never given a chance. I cannot imagine anyone encountering his music for the first time having been encouraged to explore its riches further. There is no harm in principle in staging La damnation de Faust; it has been done many times before, and I should have loved to see, for instance, what La Fura del Baus did with it in Salzburg. (There is a DVD, though I have not seen it.) Next time, however, let it be Sir Colin, the LSO, and the bare walls of the Barbican.


Vecchio John said...

Both Classical Iconoclast and I were reminded like you of Springtime for Hitler. I found the whole thing gratuitous Schlock without saving irony.

How is Jewish Marguerite redeemed from the ovens of Auschwitz by the Gounodesque final chorus ?

Mark Berry said...

I couldn't agree more. When I wrote 'problematical', I think I was erring on the side of generosity...

Doundou Tchil said...

As John says, one moment Mareguereite is in a cattle car, thenext she's lying on a cortege with snowflakes falling on her. It's heartbreaking to think how much Goethe and Berlioz have to offer but we get comic book instead.

Clay said...

Thank you. In all that rapture on Friday night, I had thought I was alone in hating the production - for exactly the reasons you spell out so well.

LBumble said...

Loathed it: lacklustre chorus (unusually for ENO they sounded as though they were sight-reading). Ill conceived - cliched & inept - I too thought of 'Springtime for Hitler' - flew entirely in essence of original work. (Faust looked like Tintin.) For me only Christine Rice's singing was anything like up to mark (pre this devaluation!)The Act II Hopperesque staging was interesting but all designers should have to appraise their work from the upper circle before finalising - we could not see much of action at front of stage, especailly in Act I, because of thoughtless design.
Most disappointing.

Dennis Clark said...

Re: ‘I could have approached The Damnation of Faust by reading a great deal about Berlioz but I avoided that.’

My respect for Gilliam has plummeted.

The Robert Lepage production of this work at the Met is highly recommended to anyone who would like to see an interpretation that respects both Goethe and Berlioz. Available in HD on MetPlayer.

Thanks for the thoughtful review.
Dennis Clark, Oakland, CA USA

Mark Berry said...

Thank you very much, Dennis. I agree that the comment you quote was shocking indeed: such arrogance! I shall try to seek out the recording you mention.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you very much, Dennis. I agree that the comment you quote was shocking indeed: such arrogance! I shall try to seek out the recording you mention.

Robert Hudson said...

Hmm. I am not very opera-literate - I come from musical theatre, really. In the way of someone who is broadly respectful of expertise, I find lots of what you say convincing.

On the other hand, I saw it last night, and mostly enjoyed it. Yes, the history was pretty Route One stuff, but I could run with most of it. The real problem I had with the evening overall was the simple dramatic one that Faust, as a character, has very little agency, especially after the interval.

It's very reasonable for a director to want to get away from M and F being destroyed by having had sex, if you can find a way to do it. I also think that it's not a bad conceit, in what seemed such a slight version of Faust, to make it a metaphor for a person being seduced by Nazism.

Problem was, this conceit wasn't followed through - F put on the brown shirt but this didn't bring about M's downfall, this wasn't integrated into some kind of coherent dramatic ending, there was an Auschwitz tableau under a song about angels going to heaven which seemed pretty crass, and etc. If you're going down the route of creating a story, you have to do the whole thing.

(I think it's fair enough, though not necessarily my approach, not to read all about Berlioz. If you're making a piece of theatre, you can make it out of the script. I'd like to know what the author intended, but the other way is perfectly respectable and can take people in ways they would never go otherwise.)

Anyway. This is an old post and I doubt you'll re-read this.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Robert. I agree with you about the conceit not being followed through. It was the sheer mess of the production that seemed to me the worst thing about it, culminating in that truly offensive, and doubtless uninentionally so, Auschwitz tableau. Again, I agree with you about authorial intention and the freedom to follow a host of other possibilities; it was Gilliam's cavalier arrogance in brushing aside the composer as unworthy of his attention that I found most dispiriting.