Poor old Berlioz. The moment Terry Gilliam was announced as director of this new ENO staging, it was obvious that the composer would scarcely get a look-in, at least in advance. It's the first venture into opera (in a co-production with De Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp) for the Monty Python animator and director of such legendary movies as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King. The question, of course, was: could this operatic novice deliver in a field where so many other film supremos have fallen flat on their faces?
Well, in certain ways Berlioz doesn't get a look-in in the finished version either, since Gilliam has elected to take us through a journey through German history, all the way from Romanticism – the red-haired Faust himself is straight out of that famed Caspar David Friedrich painting – to, you guessed it, Marguerite rises to heaven from Auschwitz. It's not so much Monty Python as The Producers, so full is the show of camp, dancing, exercising Nazis. Springtime for Terry and Berlioz, anyone? But Python fans will be glad to know that close to the start we do get a glimpse of something much resembling the Knights that say Ni.
Berlioz's Faust is a challenge at the best of times – it's not even opera, strictly speaking, but in the composer's terminology a "légende dramatique", part cantata, part opera and possibly as ill-suited to the stage as Goethe's "closet drama" that inspired it. But Berlioz, Gilliam and the character of Mephistopheles, the devil, have two great things in common: a vast imagination and a sense of unbounded mischief that means breaking all the rules, including "avoid cliché". Gilliam seems to have elected to do the latter so spectacularly that it floors everyone anyway. At least sometimes.
When it doesn't work, it really doesn't work. After all, the Nazis had nothing whatsoever to do with Berlioz, who wrote this magnificent work back in 1846, let alone Goethe. Yet the best moments are stunning. Having spent most of the first half thinking "When are we ever going to grow up and get past putting the Nazis into opera?" by the end of the evening this critic was shaken and profoundly moved.
All credit to ENO for pulling it off. It's a phenomenally slick, complex show of many components and brilliant theatrical effects.
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