Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.

The nature of narropera?

How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

Early Swedish opera - Stenhammer world premiere

The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles [Photo by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera]
09 May 2011

The Damnation of Faust, ENO

Terry Gilliam was one of the forces behind Monty Python, the popular British TV comedy of the 1970’s. His fans will flock in droves to his version of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO, London.

Hector Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust

Marguerite: Christine Rice; Faust: Peter Hoare; Mephistopheles: Christopher Purves; Brander: Nicholas Folwell; Soprano solo: Ella Kirkpatrick. English National Orchestra. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Terry Gilliam. Set designer: Hildegarde Bechtler. Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay. Lighting designer: Peter Mumford. Video designer: Finn Ross. Associate Director: Leah Hausman.The Coliseum, London, 6th May 2011.

Above: Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles

All photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera

 

This production is great theatre, but it’s best approached as a Monty Python skit on the theme of Faust, with incidental soundtrack by Berlioz.

Gilliam’s take on Faust stems from it being a classic of German literature, overlooking the inconvenient fact that Berlioz was French and that Christopher Marlowe, who was English, wrote an important play on the theme centuries before Goethe was even born. The Faust legend has universal resonance, which is why it’s an icon. But Gilliam narrows the focus down to Germany and to the Third Reich. In principle, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be updated in this way, but it would take a director of genuine vision and insight to develop the concept properly. Gilliam, however, isn’t bothered with veracity as long as he can tell a good story. The problem is that the Nazis and the Holocaust should be much more than props in a feelgood musical.

Damnation-Of-Faust_Christin.gifChristine Rice as Marguerite and Peter Hoare as Faust

Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust reveals itself in a series of tableaux, each of them recognizable images from German art. Beautiful reconstruction of a Romantic painting, a reference to a famous cartoon of the First World War, vignettes from Georg Grosz, and a montage from the films of Leni Reifenstahl. They enfold like pictures in a short illustrated guide to Germany, compiled for illiterates. If we can avoid things like the Holocaust ever happening again, we need to understand the real complexities that brought them about. Comic book cleverness ultimately demeans knowledge, for it substitutes cliché for real thought. Totalitarianism thrives on lazy minds.

Faust (Peter Hoare) sports an upright shock of orange hair. Is this a reference to Peter Sellars? Apart from vague references to books on shelves, there’s precious little of Faust as scientist or idealist in this production. Faust becomes a SA brownshirt, the type whose resentment of intellectuals drove them to burn books. Marguerite (Christine Rice) becomes orthodox Jewish, undressing and swapping wigs while standing before a brightly lit menorah on the Sabbath eve. It’s no surprise that Faust ends up crucified on a swastika cross. Such images have shock value, but unless they’re integrated into an overall vision, they became little more than cheap entertainment.

Perhaps Gilliam is a comedian and is having a joke. But the indications are that he’s taking it all too portentously. “My struggle” says Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves) “Mein Kampf”. The audience obediently titters. Marguerite is shown as Brünnhilde on a rock, surrounded by flames. Faust does a comic impression of Siegfried. While connections between Faust and the Ring do exist, in this production they’re happened upon by accident, no more thought through than some sensationalist yellow press scandal. It’s enough here that Hitler liked Wagner, ergo Wagner was Third Reich.

While Gilliam wasn’t involved in Fawlty Towers, the spin off TV series that followed Monty Python, he falls back on the same mindless xenophobia that infects a large part of the population. The central character in the TV show was obsessed by Germans and the war, unable to think of people as people, only as caricatures. It was too persistent to be satire, and reinforced stereotypes by making them seem like harmless fun. The audience reaction to Gilliam’s gimmicks showed that perhaps Britain hasn’t matured in 30 years.

Significantly, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust isn’t an opera but a hybrid from which voices emerge from an orchestral fantasy. This doesn’t preclude staging, and indeed the long passages without text allow greater freedom of interpretation than might normally be the case. But fundamentally, there’s no point in any staging at all if it disregards the original. Berlioz’s orchestral writing is so vividly dynamic that it “is” the drama, the vocal parts devoted to vignettes like “King of Thule” song and “The Flea”. The visuals in this production were so hyperactive that at times, the cast had to slow themselves down not to lose synch with the music.

In a recent interview Gilliam is qouted as saying “Berlioz was crackers, he suffered like I do”. Wagner comes off even worse. Gilliam would cut out the recitatives in the Ring. Yet with metaphysics and subtle complexities expunged, neither Berlioz nor Wagner would be what they are. Just as there’s no real engagement with German history in this production, there’s no real engagement with the music.

Damnation-Of-Faust_Peter-Ho.gifPeter Hoare as Faust and Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles

Superb singing from Christine Rice, way above the level of the rest of the cast. There were momentary lapses elsewhere, the tessitura being to high for Hoare, and the legato unbalanced by clumsy translation. No jokes in the English text this time, for they’d compete with what was happening on stage. Purves and Nicholas Folwell (Brander) were reliable, both parts depending on acting skills as much as on singing. Because the orchestral parts were so critical to Berlioz, it was a balm that Edward Gardner conducted the ENO orchestra well.

The irony of Gilliam’s Damnation of Faust is that audiences who might otherwise howl with rage at more original, challenging work will applaud Gilliam’s indifference to the original. Self referential gags are peppered throughout the production so the audience don’t forget they’ve come for Monty Python, not Goethe or Faust. This is an example of the much maligned but usually misunderstood “Director opera” with a vengeance, but audiences take it because the director happens to be someone popular (and not German). Thus it won’t be damned but lauded.

In Mel Brooks’s 1968 classic, The Producers, two con men cook up the worst possible musical so it will fail and they can run off with investors’ money. The show within the movie is Springtime for Hitler, complete with high stepping SS men. Against all reason, the audience loves it and the show becomes a hit. The Producers was a satire on the gullbility of the public. As long as there’s a song and a dance, people will follow anything.

For more details, please see the ENO website HERE.

For a full download of a performance of Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, with Nicolai Gedda and Marilyn Horne (1968) please see HERE.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):