Heads Up: The Damnation of Faust

A completely different take on Berlioz's 'legend'
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The Independent Culture

What are we talking about? Terry Gilliam directs his first opera, Hector Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, for English National Opera.

Elevator Pitch And now for something completely different for Berlioz.

Prime Movers Gilliam, the Monty Python cartoonist who graduated to directing fantastical films including Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, now turns his eye to opera. Edward Garner, the young conductor credited with breathing new life into the ENO as music director, holds the baton.

The Talent Baritone Christopher Purves is Mephistopheles (Gilliam thought he was the perfect choice because he'd sung in a pop group, Harvey & the Wallbangers). Faust is taken on by Peter Hoare, fresh from playing Larry King in Anna Nicole, while ENO regular, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, is Marguerite.

The Early Buzz ENO has released trailers and a "quote of the day" from Gilliam, which range from sublimely ridiculous to just a bit dull ("We are in fairyland today!"; "Minefields of joy!"; "The singers were LOUD!"; "Production meeting!"). Opera blog Intermezzo picked up on some dubious design elements, however: "In the just-released trailer [Gilliam] grants a sneak peek at a swastika-plastered sketch pad, the first public whiff of his production concept."

Insider Knowledge Purves and Gilliam met at a fellow Python's project, when they both appeared in Eric Idle's Not the Messiah, an oratorio based on The Life of Brian.

It's great that... Gilliam doesn't sound too cowed by admiration or constrained by convention when it comes to staging Berlioz's opera; in an ENO interview he enthusiastically asks: "Am I the tuning fork that smashes against the rock that is Berlioz? What defines opera, what determines it?" before pointing out that Berlioz himself "certainly didn't play by the rules".

It's a shame that... ENO's poaching of directors from other disciplines doesn't always go down well; Gilliam might be seen as just another flown-in big name without the requisite musical talent (previous productions helmed by the likes of Mike Figgis, Sally Potter, Rufus Norris or Rupert Goold have all had detractors).

Hit Potential Even if it takes a critical beating, the Coliseum should still easily fill its seats for a 10-night run.

The Details The Damnation of Faust is at the London Coliseum, WC2 (eno.org), 6 May to 7 June.