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Saturday 7 May 2011

Berlioz's Faust

La Damnation de Faust

This show was rapturously received by the audience, but I left the theatre partially dazzled and partially confused. The whole thing is all about Terry Gilliam really - everyone wants to see what the ex-Python has done with this notoriously difficult to stage opera/oratorio/thing (Berlioz calls it a légende dramatique).

For me La Damnation de Faust is Berlioz's finest work, every section quirkily masterful, powerful and brilliant, and it contains almost no dross whatsoever. I am a big Berlioz fan but even I admit that he's rarely so consistently inspired as here. So what if it's not the most compelling retelling of the Faust legend dramatically? It's an epic, sprawling masterpiece, completely strange and completely wonderful. A piquant contrast to Thursday's Massenet (also that composers finest work) - suave sentiment versus gawky beauty!

The cast is mostly excellent, Peter Hoare in the horrendously taxing role of Faust sounding beautiful most of the time, Christine Rice's Marguerite very well sung too, if a tad bland, and Christopher Purves, a little rough around the edges these days, but with great presence and playing the part to perfection. The choir also sings their glorious music wonderfully (though outrageously someone started clapping before the end of their final quiet number - why do people do this?). Edward Gardner lead the hugely bolstered ENO orchestra brilliantly, and they responded in kind with some very fine playing indeed.

This production updates the action to 20th century Germany, covering the first and second world wars, with Faust caught up in the middle of it all. The number cultural references are bewildering, and I'm sure I missed loads. The opening has a landscape redolent of Caspar David Friedrich, the ne plus ultra of romantic nature worshipping teutonic heroism as a backdrop for Faust's evocation to nature. Leni Reifenstahl's film Olympia crops up too, as well as the outbreak of the first world war (in a daringly comedic pantomime), Brownshirts, communists and the rise of the Nazis, Kristallnacht, and it all ends in Auschwitz. When Faust dreams of Marguerite she appears as a sleeping Brunhilde replete with ring of fire, as the German public and Nazi officials look on (am I the only one who got this? No one else has mentioned it yet!). It's an extended commentary/critique/sending up of German culture and history, but how relevant is it really to the Faust story? What about this "konzept" really illuminates the characters or drama? I'm all for intelligent Regie theatre, but there needs to be some sort of essential and meaningful correspondance between the new situation and the original intention of the composer for it to yield any insights, or show the familiar piece in a new light. It just seemed that these two strands, Faust on the one side and German history on the other, were running along side each other with little interrelation; Mephistopheloes was the most common point of contact as far as it went, though again, it just seemed to be that he had two largely unrelated roles, with his manipulation of Faust on the one hand, and his orchestrating of Nazi activities on the other. This was an uncomfortable piece of staging partly because it didn't seem necessary - surely his dramatic role is almost exclusively to tempt Faust - and partly because Nazi Germany's crimes being the work of the devil seems a terrible abdication of blame to me. And actually the setting often detracted from the telling of the story - both because the staging was so visually confusing, with its consistently poor lighting (which didn't lead the eye at all, and unfairly left the sets looking rather ramshackle and poorly conceived) and over stuffing with ideas (no doubt paranoia that the piece is too slow dramatically on its own), and often because of the inexplicable relationship between what was going on stage to the actual action in the score. That is not to say that there weren't a lot of extremely visually arresting portions, especially those including video sequences, but it didn't quite live up to the promise of its designer/director's (over)fertile mind - it seemed to me that there was not enough editing of ideas, or thought about how it would actually look on stage. Not only did the drama suffer, but often the wonderful music was lost in the fray as well.

A case in point: Faust's love scene with Marguerite happens on Kristallnacht, and soon after, instead of going to prison, Marguerite, being a Jew, gets carted off to a concentration camp (no mention of her poisoning her mother!). Then in the finale scene, she is seen on a pile of dead bodies while the choir sings it's beautiful refrain about her return to purity, salvation and ascension to heaven. Apart from this being an inappropriately Christian sentiment for a Jewish woman, when the crowd sings that she died because love led her astray, in the current staging it isn't true - she died because of her race, and the unthinkable evil of the Nazis. It could have made sense if her liaison with Faust had caused her to be found by the Nazis, but again the staging was so unclear at that point, that if this was the intention, it was lost. And lets get back to that scene - she's lying on a pile of bodies in Auschwitz, accompanied by music of unearthly beauty, bordering on religious kitsch because of the embarrassing piety of the sentiment and situation as presented by Berlioz. Yes it's a powerful image and deeply shocking, but is it meaningful or telling in any way? Again I have to demur.

Despite all this it was a decent evening's entertainment I have to say, and it was well recieved - at least the ENO are taking risks! I think a lot of people will get swept away with it all and love it without thinking about it too much. And Berlioz's music is very well served by the conductor, orchestra, soloists and choir, even if it is often battling with the furor of the stage.

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