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Stage Review: Terry Gilliam's Opera 'The Damnation of Faust' Is A Return To Form & Then Some

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 30, 2011 at 1:15AM

We've made no bones about our disappointment in Terry Gilliam's recent work. We absolutely have sympathy for the behind-the-scenes troubles that the helmer's suffered in recent years, with a string of bad luck almost unmatched among filmmakers, but unfortunately the work that has made it to the screens, from the Diet Gilliam of "The Brothers Grimm" to the gaudy, half-baked greatest hits set that was "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," has shown a director struggling to find his form.
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We've made no bones about our disappointment in Terry Gilliam's recent work. We absolutely have sympathy for the behind-the-scenes troubles that the helmer's suffered in recent years, with a string of bad luck almost unmatched among filmmakers, but unfortunately the work that has made it to the screens, from the Diet Gilliam of "The Brothers Grimm" to the gaudy, half-baked greatest hits set that was "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," has shown a director struggling to find his form.

But the fact remains: we love Gilliam. He's been behind a string of stone-cold classics over the years ("Brazil" nestles among this writer's favorite films of all time), and we wish that European financiers lavished financing on the director, like they do Woody Allen, so he could make a film a year. But alas, it doesn't happen. In lieu of funding for the long-delayed passion project "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," which has now fallen apart more times than we can count, the director has started to move into other areas, in an uncharacteristically prolific manner, with three short films, an Arcade Fire webcast, "The Wholly Family" for an Italian pasta company and producing duties on the retro animation "1884" all in the last year. And a year or so ago, it was announced that, years after dropping out of a mooted gig at La Scala, Gilliam would be making his opera-directing debut this spring with a production of Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust" at the English National Opera in London.


It was by no means a guaranteed home-run: Gilliam has virtually no stage experience (with only a show for legendary Russian clown Slava Polunin in Israel under his belt), and certainly not on the massive scale of an opera production with a cast of hundreds, while the piece itself, originally designed for concert performances, and rarely staged, is defiantly untheatrical. But, we were lucky enough to catch it a week or so ago, and are positively delighted to report that the end result is an absolute triumph on every level, and, while it's not quite fair to compare the two mediums, probably Gilliam's best work as a director in at least twenty years.

Based on a legend that's proven to be fertile territory for fiction from Marlowe to Gilliam's own 'Doctor Parnassus,' Berlioz's piece, heavily indebted to Goethe's two-part play, premiered in 1846, and follows the titular Faust (Peter Hoare), a suicidal scholar in Germany who's promised youth and success by Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves). With the help of his devilish new friend, Faust woos a young woman, Marguerite (Christine Rice), but her reputation is ruined as a result, and she ends up sentenced to death. Faust offers to save her from the hangman, but she decides to trust in God instead, and Faust is transported to hell, while Marguerite is sent to heaven.


And that's about the run of it, but Gilliam has transformed the piece into a sort of potted history of Germany in the 19th century, beginning with a glorious pastoral landscape nodding to Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich before moving through the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis, with Faust's fall mirroring that of the nation around him. It's a neat idea, but an ambitious one, and could in theory have proven over-familliar, with Nazis somewhat ten-a-penny in the opera world.

But it's entirely successful: Gilliam's vision compliments Berlioz's original, rather than overwhelming it, and it's brilliantly realized, aided by Hildegard Bechtner's outstanding stage design, and some top-notch video work, again used to support what's going on on stage, rather than dominating it in the way that many filmmakers-turned-stage-directors can lean (Mike Figgis' awful recent ENO production of "Lucrezia Borgia" springs to mind). The spectacle of the show is hugely impressive when it needs to be (a parade of Aryan athletes for the Berlin Olympics, flirting with, but staying the right side of, "Springtime for Hitler"-style Nazi kitsch), but Gilliam's also aware that less can be more, staging the initial meeting between Faust and Mephistopheles in a metaphysical black box that appears within the set, and keeping the touching love scene between the protagonist and Marguerite in a tiny bedroom.


It's in that scene that Gilliam displays perhaps his greatest coup de theatre -- showing the events of Kristallnacht in the streets outside (designed and lit in a Fritz Lang-esque German Expressionist manner), before rewinding time and revolving the scenery to show Faust and Marguerite's tender love scene. It's the best example of the way in which Gilliam blends the original story with the newly-added historical backdrop, and the way in which the two compliment each other: for instance, we meet Marguerite as a blonde, but it's soon revealed that she's Jewish, wearing a wig for her own safety, and it adds a new level of pathos to the tale, particularly when she's taken for transportation. It ends with invocations of the Holocaust which are truly powerful and moving in a way that the often-arch Gilliam can sometimes shy away from (although he can't resist stretching Faust's limbs into the shape of a crucifix at the climax).

It's consistently thrilling stuff, far fresher and more exciting than anything the director's done in years and, despite his professed inexperience in the form (he told The Daily Telegraph when it was still in rehearsals that "I've seen more operas since signing up to do this than I have in my whole life. About five"), it seems to have reinvigorated the helmer creatively: it's immediately recognizable as a Gilliam piece (particularly the gravity-defying haircut of Faust himself, and the wry humor of Mephistopheles and his demonic assistants), but it feels like brand new territory, never descending into the seeming self-parody that's marked much of his recent work.

While we can't claim to be opera buffs, it seemed immaculately performed and sung, with all three central performances being absolutely terrific, with stage presences that more than match their vocals. There's a handful of performances left in the next couple of weeks before the production moves on to Europe: but if you aren't able to make it (and if you're in the neighborhood, you really should), the BBC will be filming the production for broadcast (and hopefully a DVD release) later in the year, so you should get to see it for yourself at some stage.

Either way, it's made us more than happy to report that, even at 70, Gilliam has a few tricks left up his sleeve, and we sincerely hope that it carries across to whatever he does on screen next. [A]

This article is related to: Review, Terry Gilliam


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