Damnation of Faust

Tom Sutcliffe on Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Opera, set in Nazi Germany

My heart sank when I leafed through the programme for English National Opera’s new production by Terry Gilliam of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, as I settled into my Sunday matinee seat at the London Coliseum. As well as a familiar painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the familiar Tischbein portrait of Goethe in a big hat, there was a gallery of photos from the dozen years of Nazi insanity: the Berlin Olympics, the Nuremberg Rally, stormtroopers, the Führer saluting, the morning after Kristallnacht. Oh dear, I thought. So Faust was no longer to be an example of human wisdom gone wrong, an old man wanting his youth back (at 68 I know the feeling), a man bargaining to obtain pleasure now from the devil at the expense of possible eternal bliss later. Instead Gilliam’s Faust was to come alive in the context of modern German history. ‘I thought,’ the director explained, ‘what would happen if there were another narrative, one that everybody knew and which propelled the story in a different way.’ Gilliam felt that all Berlioz’s wonderful exciting music somehow delayed or obscured the storyline.

An unconvincing approach

It’s true Berlioz’s Damnation is a concert opera, a sequence of tableaux. A few decades after the brutality of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests, an era full of ludicrous vanities and dashed hopes, Berlioz was exploring with potent emotion Goethe’s questioning expansion of the Faust myth. The work pauses at each milestone along the way and relishes what is implied. Faust does not sign away his soul until Mephistopheles demands it in exchange for the failed (false) dash to rescue the abandoned traduced Marguerite (in this production a Jewish Berliner sent on her way to Auschwitz). But, really, the music is the storyline. You just have to listen to it and let it tell you things that relate very clearly to Berlioz’s take on Goethe – both of them of course being non-Christians who nevertheless find fascination and meaning in the Christian message of the Faust story. For me, the intriguing issue was why Gilliam chose to dress up the work as he did. I could not buy into Gilliam’s approach, however clever its execution. I felt that all the Nazi references became clichés of evil on stage, offensive to the ghastly reality. Furthermore all these extravagant but cheap representations of German wickedness played up to English continuing resentfulness about the supposed injustice of German post-war economic and cultural achievements compared with how little Britain has been rewarded for standing alone against the Panzer torrent: which is our endlessly dwelt-on national myth.

Almost a sideshow

Faust should be an individual sinner. At ENO he became almost a sideshow, just a part of a profoundly devilish landscape. The focus of Gilliam’s production is on Mephistopheles (the brilliantly suave Christopher Purves, who, however, seemed to be amplified whenever he was speaking, and even when he was singing sounded odd) as the theatre director or circus master – introducing the whole work with new text and apparatus at the start, and controlling the box of theatrical tricks later. Yet Faust himself (the talented Peter Hoare with his crisp penetrating tenor) was turned by Katrina Lindsay’s costume into a ridiculous figure in a ginger Struwwelpeter wig, a fool feebly tarnished by some of the direst evil-doing on a large scale that most people can think of. Gilliam’s difficulty with the work was not, I think, what he says. Quite simply, even the twentieth century with its horrific wickedness did not provide a lifeline for the devil. We may be arguing with some famous atheists as to whether God is dead, as they like to tell us, or never existed, but God is still there – something to do with love and hope and eternal values. The devil, on the other hand, has simply ceased to exist. Humanity has graduated to the full panoply of wickedness all by itself. The economy of salvation, many people think, is entirely to do with the working out of divine forgiveness. And how could it be otherwise, when science (or rather neurologists) demonstrate ever more unanswerably that ‘original sin’ is an unequally inherited burden, causing many to be born with tendencies that are far more immutable than any amount of careful nurture can repair?

Evil is personal

I am not a behaviourist. I like to think I have made mistaken choices and sinned on my own account. The threat of damnation needs and invites mercy. But how many people in the theatre see it the way it was evoked in the age of the Gothic revival, which in any case was certainly not how either Goethe or Berlioz believed things to be? If the devil is not in the detail, Gilliam felt he had to put something else there – evoking the greatest evil about which all can agree. But one thing you can be sure about evil is that, even in the blackest depth of the holocaust, it has to be personal – and, in the year when Hans Fallada’s remarkable Alone in Berlin became a British bestseller, it was somehow tasteless and offensive for Gilliam to expend so much energy and skill on staging The Damnation of Faust this way, as a pageant of Nazi evil. ND