The Damnation of Faust - ENO, 6 May 2011
What lures men to evil?
Linking the rise of the Nazis to the Faust tale isn't new - Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus got there a long time ago. But Terry Gilliam's exploration of the seductive power of the dark side is so assured and so brilliantly integrated with Berlioz's music that it's hard to believe this is the first time he's directed an opera - not to mention that he claims to be no great opera fan anyway.
After a superfluous spoken (and unevenly amplified) prologue, he zips through a gothic landscape (the Hoher Göll in Caspar David Friedrich style), Prussian militarism, the hardships of the First World War and the decadence of the Weimar Republic to show how Germany's dangerous brew of rationalist thought and romantic temperament hatched the Nazis.
The maximalist aesthetic, instantly recognisable as Gilliam's, is vaguely reminiscent of Hans Jürgen Syberberg's filmed Parsifal. This alone makes it 100x better than the singing sofas and softcore interludes of ENO's last movie director experiment. Gilliam's expertise in big-budget special effects shows in seamless scene transitions and stunning but never intrusive projections. The singers really act, and the crowds move around with a natural ease - a reminder that directing movies involves more than sprinkling pixie dust on Johnny Depp and standing back.
A detour into a spectacular perspective-shifting cube, the product of Faust's ordered scientist mind, is the most successful scene in this first section. The rest of the first half hour is even bittier than Berlioz's patchwork dramaturgy, and borders in places on unintentional humour. But it's impossible to be bored - a barrage of inventive imagery fills in wherever Christopher Purves's magnetic Mephistopheles and Peter Hoare's manic carrot-haired Faust take a rest.
But once Faust arrives at a '30s Bierkeller packed with Brownshirts, Gilliam settles into his theme. Thugs rough up Jews to the accompaniment of the Song of the Flea, the words slotting as neatly into the Nazi lexicon of hatred as the oompah strains do.
A military gymnastics parade is the next stop. The backdrop is Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia. Nazi imagery is a dangerous weapon, but one that Gilliam handles for the most part with care. Here however, Springtime for Hitler-style choreography veers towards Holocaust kitsch. Nothing memorable was ever created without taking risks and this is the evening's most potent reminder.
Marguerite is first seen in Faust's vision, where she's a helmeted Wagnerian heroine, and Faust her bold Siegfried. But the real Marguerite lights a menorah, revealing her as Jewish, and all at once the final trajectory of Gilliam's tale becomes clear. Her swift seduction by Faust is knowingly played for laughs. A dazzling reverse time sequence sees her dragged off to the trains to Berlioz's Will-o-the-Wisps music.
Christine Rice was an inspired casting choice - her intelligence and sensitivity to text allow her to put across the lumpy English translation of Love's Ardent Flame with real feeling. Peter Hoare, excellent if reedy in the first half, was tested beyond his limits by the insanely high writing of the second.
The Ride to the Abyss in motorcycle and sidecar is accompanied by stunning 3D projections of overhead war planes, and, for the first time in an otherwise tepid night, thrilling orchestral playing. That the evening was engaging despite Edward Gardner's largely timid and directionless conducting is a testament to the power of Gilliam's vision.
Faust meets his end crucified upside-down on a swastika, an arresting inversion of the image on the opening safety curtain of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man. But the most powerful image is the final one. As the heavenly tones of the chorus waft upwards, Marguerite is just one of a pile of concentration camp corpses - her story, and Faust's, have been repeated over and over again.