The Damnation of Faust, Coliseum, London
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London
The Night Shift, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The latest English National Opera newcomer succumbs to the guaranteed shock factor of Nazi Germany in updating the fable of a pact with the Devil
Sunday 08 May 2011
If in doubt, stick a swastika on it.
It worked for Alan Coren's Golfing for Cats. But does it work in The Damnation of Faust? Terry Gilliam's debut production with English National Opera transposes Berlioz's légende dramatique to the Third Reich: casting Mephistopheles's "Song of the Flea" as anti-Semitic propaganda, crucifying a straitjacketed Faust on a giant swastika, and hymning the redemption of Marguerite as her gassed corpse rots on a pile of looted mannequins.
Faust is a first for the film director, animator and ex-Python. Much like his films, Gilliam's staging is at once ironic, romantic and provocative. He has done his homework, presenting a smooth, if simplistic, reading of German cultural history from Caspar David Friedrich to Berchtesgaden, Valhalla to Belsen. Stagecraft and video projection combine with more impact than in Mike Figgis's Lucrezia Borgia. The Marche Hongroise is an antic pantomime of Prussian, Russian, Austrian, English and French Empires in conflict (design by Hildegard Bechtler). Act II closes with footage from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, while the Menuet des Follets is a Kristallnacht ballet. These are the big set pieces. But the production sags in the dream-like vapours of what happens between them.
Conductor Edward Gardner has chosen a particular orchestral sound as default and seldom varies its intensity. Excepting the langorous cor anglais solo, what registers is an amorphous pastel wash. Vocally, the choruses lack vitality, and menace is notably absent from the Pandemonium. Though Christine Rice brings voluptuous gravity to Marguerite's arias, she looks uncomfortable with Gilliam's characterisation of Goethe's heroine as a Jewish woman with a sexual craving for brown-shirts. Shock-wigged and clarion-clear in Acts I and II, Peter Hoare's Faust falters in Acts III and IV. Kinetic energy and musical intelligence are great assets, but the role requires an easy-access high register. As pimp, magician, Kommandant, comedian and MC, Christopher Purves is a seductive Mephistopheles. There's much to admire and even more to object to in Gilliam's operatic debut. But added up, all you have is Goethe for Cats, with extra swastikas.
Pitched to the high end of low brow, with a crafty trailer for the forthcoming Glyndebourne season in the form of the Overture to Die Meistersinger, Vladimir Jurowski's programme with Christine Brewer and the London Philharmonic Orchestra looked like a mid-week fire sale. With popularity comes a curl of the cognoscento lip. But Jurowski's readings of Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony revealed the refined bone structure of these well-upholstered works.
Jurowski's Meistersinger is still developing, uncertain in its modulation from sturdy, provincial pride to the secretive blush of the love theme. From where I sat, the LPO's brass were fleet-footed giants, the strings and woodwind miraculously gifted pygmies. In the Strauss, Jurowski used the sheerest tints of colour to enhance a voice that, for all its heft and span, is most enchanting at its softest. The closing bars of "Im Abendrot" were remarkable for their coolness, the trilling birds unmoved by a quotidian human death. The Tchaikovsky was cruel and stunning, shaved of vibrato, tautly controlled from the baleful woodwind to the feathery pizzicato. In Jurowski's hands, beauty of sound is a by-product, not the main objective.
With acoustic sets, a DJ, a student bar and free gifts, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's The Night Shift works hard to attract younger listeners. If you've grown up getting a toy when you eat a burger, I suppose you'd expect a beer mat with your Beethoven. The main event offered edited highlights of an earlier concert – two movements of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, three of Schubert's Tragic Symphony – and a chat with the artists. Pianist Artur Pizarro was field wrangling a coltish fortepiano with scarcely more oompf than a clavichord. "Can you play a very loud chord for us?" asked presenter Alistair Appleton. "Um ... no," said Pizarro.
Fortepianos, eh? Even the name is back to front. But it says much about the supposed gracelessness and inattentiveness of the young that OAE's audience of twenty-somethings inclined so closely to Pizarro's whispered flurries of rolled chords and didn't scarper when conductor Roy Goodman enthused about Schubert's use of "the flattened submediant". The tuning was hairy, the hemiolas excitable, the twin aims of approachability and education unsteadily balanced, but as Appleton said, "Yay for dissonance!"
'The Damnation of Faust' (0871 911 0200) to 7 June
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