The Pick - The Damnation of Faust

May 12, 2011

The Damnation of Faust

English National Opera, London, until 7 June

In 2006-07, the site-specific theatre company Punchdrunk put on a thrilling adaptation of Goethe's Faust in a disused London warehouse. At one memorable moment, audience members clawed their way through a primeval German forest and suddenly found themselves in a 1950s diner. The show was a reminder that imaginative directors can still find ways to breathe new life into the age-old story of the scholar who sells his soul to the devil.

Or not, in the case of Terry Gilliam's staggeringly crass production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. It must have sounded like an intriguing pairing. The composer acknowledged that his 1846 "opera" probably worked better in concert performance. Perhaps Gilliam's flamboyance could make it plausibly dramatic.

What soon emerges is that this is a production with a "big idea". The ostensible plot - Faust struggling to find meaning in life, Marguerite seduced and abandoned - is totally upstaged by what the programme describes as "the trajectory of German art and history from the late 19th to the mid-20th century".

This amounts to a whistle-stop tour of some very familiar landmarks: the soulful wanderer on his mountain peak (anticipating Hitler's "eagle's nest"), Wagner, the trauma of the First World War, the creepy decadence of the Weimar Republic - not a patch on Cabaret, never mind the savage paintings from the time that appear in the programme - callisthenics and the Berlin Olympics.

We can tell where all this is leading, alas, and it requires a wilful deafness to the music. The final section opens with a tender aria by Marguerite, on a familiar operatic theme, as she laments her betrayal and yearns for the brief moments of love she has known with Faust. Gilliam puts her among a crowd of Jews about to be shoved into cattle cars, sweeping aside the genuine pathos with completely unearned emotion.

The climax comes with Faust's damnation and Marguerite's apotheosis. The former is powerful on CD but undeniably difficult to stage, with Faust and Mephistopheles galloping across a bleak landscape on black horses pursued by demons chanting some sort of devilish mumbo-jumbo as Hell bursts open. Gilliam probably does the best that can be done with it, putting the protagonists on an ancient motorbike and using a combination of animation, back projection and filmed explosions.

This is followed by the final scene where celestial voices summon Marguerite - "a naive soul led astray by love" - into Heaven. The notion of the wronged woman redeemed may now require a certain suspension of disbelief. But that is not enough for Gilliam, who puts her on top of a pile of emaciated corpses and attempts to redeem the whole Holocaust. It would be hard to imagine a more tasteless theatrical coup.

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