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Photo by Annemie Augustijns / Vlaamse Opera
15 Oct 2012

Rewriting the Unwritten Law: Gilliam and Ghent Tackle Damnation

One of the most noteworthy and controversial productions in recent memory arrived in Belgium with hurricane force as Director Terry Gilliam’s inaugural opera, an inspired interpretation of Hector Berlioz’s Le Damnation de Faust, blasted into Ghent, followed by a run in Antwerp.

Rewriting the Unwritten Law: Gilliam and Ghent Tackle Damnation

An interview by Phillip Woolever

Except as otherwise indicated, all photos copyright Annemie Augustijns / Vlaamse Opera


The extraordinary extravaganza, in collaboration with the English National Opera and Teatro Massimo, Palermo, had an initial UK run in London and garnished solid overall reviews during the summer of 2011. This year’s audience saw the work on a smaller scale, but with equal power, a dramatic spectacle deserving continued mention among the best efforts in recent seasons anywhere.

Gilliam’s choice of placing the central narrative amidst the rise of the Nazis was a natural fit that avoided cliché pitfalls through startling portrayals of humanity, both good and evil.

No single act really expanded on the progressive canvas found in places like Wroclaw or Helsinki, but the show as a whole seemed to up the abstract ante of opera as a package deal. A couple scenes resembled a warp of “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. Strange, appropriate or not, it usually worked.

For many observers, reportedly including Berlioz himself, this composition was considered beyond the era’s production capabilities. The story goes that it took twenty years to bring the project, deemed by the author not as opera but “legend dramatique” to the public. Even then, the few performances during his lifetime were in concert form only and the concept wasn’t fully staged until 1893, twenty four years after Berlioz died.

To profess that the piece received even minimally sporadic revivals since then is still an over-statement. It is, however, no exaggeration to claim that ENO and Vlaamse Opera, behind Gilliam and his numerous collaborators and tutors, have achieved something of a milestone in both scope and genre.

A bitter Berlioz injected personal venom into his take on Goethe’s own version of the legend. For the rebellious romantic Gilliam, this was not the same old, horrible Hitler story, regarding visuals or villains. It was also a misguided love story, and refreshing to see a distinction between the Nazis and the rest of Germany over history. Still, images of evil either subtle as a dark, lurking demon or illuminated in gigantic 50’s mad man styled billboards, stood out strongest among some instant classic sets.


While a few props wouldn’t merit more than a passing grade in a good college cast, that was a minor flaw. Most sets were stunning. Most important, they supported a scenes’ intent with more than only ornamentation.

In truth, this performance was more of a visual triumph than anything, simply because many images burned so brightly. That’s not to imply that the sound held no fury.

Vocals were fine by everyone, including Michael Spyres in the demanding title tenor role, which required a huge percentage of the score’s delivery. Michele Pertusi reached fittingly dark baritone depths as a Mephistopheles with fantastic facial features, while Simon Bailey held down the bass as Brander. Maria Riccarda Wessling nailed Marguerite’s mezzo-soprano strength and vulnerability seamlessly, with her effective “Romance van Margaretha” emerging as the soloists’ highlight of the night.

There were probably unavoidable moments when sensational sights hindered the crowd’s connection to the characters, but overall the singers commanded attention with a shared, subtle strength through restraint. It was definitely a team effort.

With lesser theatrics, it might have been easier to decide where this music rightfully belongs in Berlioz’s historical status. Clearly, a vastly helpful combination of Gilliam, technical advances, and social or audience changes enhanced and updated Berlioz’s basics.

Massive chorus scenes erupted with rare impact and still struck close to home in this region. An early exposition of rivalry between Nazis and Communists played almost as twisted as he real thing.


On a night where everyone from the featured singers to the supporting ensemble deserved the near- raucous reception that greeted them, the standout performance overall came from the Symphony Orchestra of de Vlaamse Opera, which provided the strongest statement of actual Berlioz bombast. The crystal clear SOVO company filled the air with tension, sorrow, and vivid life in a superb texture of frequent, extreme transitions.

At the curtain calls there were sometimes over a hundred performers on stage, and doubtless dozens more in the wings who deserved some bows. The beautiful, ornate house itself had a festive, communal feel that might have aligned along similar horizons when color came to motion pictures.

Musical Director Dmitri Jurowski provided a strong foundation for the program’s success, and offered insight into the process.

“I think, in the first place, when we speak about this music we have to speak about contrasts,” said Jurowski, “For this piece, for this music, and also for the staging. You have in this music everything which actually appeared in five or six hundred years, starting with the Renaissance, finishing with contemporary music. You have to be very flexible here. You cannot just relax like sometimes, especially in French opera. For me this is not really (presented as) French opera. It has, of course, all the contents of French opera, but I think in the first place you have to stay international while you follow the style the composer is giving. This is the first thing.”

“Then of course, this is one of the pieces you can only do when you have a production like this. The collaboration with Mr. Gilliam was very important because we found a story together. It was very difficult because this piece is constructed in a way that you could start in the middle. You need certain vision from a director, which makes the music work so you understand the story. Otherwise, it will be a beautiful evening of music, but you will miss a big thing.”

“For me, what we had today might be, in a way, a future of opera. We had moments of classical, old theatre, but at the same time it was not just special effects. We brought a way to combine the modern technique of movies and the old spirit of the theatre. I’d like to see these points (continue) in the next twenty or thirty years.”


Opera has incorporated video before, in various extremes, but it’s hard to recall any major production that melded forms so cohesively. Crowd scenes breathed down your neck, terrified whispers echoed from mountaintops.

There was also plenty of bitter humor, the kind that twisted smiles of approval or doubt back and forth in the audience. The doomed Faust’s swastika style crucifixion is arguably the best live-staged use of a straight jacket since Alice Cooper twisted in the ‘70s.

It says a lot about the presentation’s depth that a pile of female corpses provides a stirring, climactic image of hope. Faust’s final descent, Mephistopheles literally at the wheel, careens into a new age of opera production. Multi-media mayhem ushers in a true, heaven or hellish, eye of the beholder gamble for opera fans.

We say, jackpot.

During a steady flow of congratulatory, pink champagne and enthusiastic accolades at a packed reception party, Opera Today got a chance to ask Director Gilliam, who abstained from libations but still exuded a cheerful buzz; for a few reflections.

OT: Were there any significant changes in your approach to the production since the UK shows in May 2011, or in your perception of how the story should be presented?

Gilliam: Everything is exactly the same. We got it working then, and I see nothing that was broke, so why fix it? It always changes as you bring in other actors and other singers. It also changed because this stage is much smaller than the one in London. All these things, they’re subtle differences. They’re not major in any way.

OT: Berlioz is sitting in the audience tonight. What would you like him to be thinking?


Gilliam: I think, I hope; that our production is as crazed and brilliant as he was. You’re dealing with a very extraordinary man in Berlioz. The music is amazing, and actually, what I would really hope is that he’d say ‘You fixed it for me’, because it’s a thing that never quite worked.

OT: How do you view the medium now that you’ve completed this project as a relative newcomer, in relation to how you felt before the show came to life last year?

Gilliam: It’s really hard to judge. I think I’ve learned a lot. I still don’t know if I really understand opera, even now, having gotten through this one. I mean, it’s very funny, it depends on who the audience is, and I’m always surprised that they can sit through some rather long sequences. But they’re there.

An opera audience is different from a cinema audience and that for me is the difficult thing, learning I don’t have to keep inventing things every two seconds like in film. I thought why not use projection, why not do these things in this situation where you’ve got this ride to hell, basically, and what do you do?

I saw tapes of a couple other productions and nothing was happening. So I thought, let’s just do it like an old silent movie, we’ll get the background moving, the motorcycle will sit still, and it worked brilliantly.

OT: Which scenes were the hardest to pull off?

Gilliam: (after a long, stage-like sigh) I don’t know. It’s really hard to say. All of them were the same thing. Each one was a nightmare, so it’s hard to pick. You’ve got to get the balance right and I think we got there in the end, but it was tricky.

OT: You included some offbeat, lighter moments.

Gilliam: It’s partly because it’s both much lighter than what Berlioz intended and probably much darker at the same time because once you’re moving into Germany in the thirties, with anti-Semitism rife, I thought I’m going to do this bit of music called “Minuette de Follie” which I thought was an irritatingly pixie, fairy-like music. So I said, let’s do something horrible instead. We still have Mephistopheles’ imps that do show time, and I like doing that for the audience. Where something is horrific, then you catch yourself smiling for a moment when you shouldn’t. I like playing with the audience that way.

terrygilliamimg_2630.gifTerry Gilliam [Photo by Debby Huysman / Vlaamse Opera]

OT: How did you become involved in the project, and how do you see your role. Were you more of a driving force or collaborator? Beside normal debut expectations, did you feel any pressure?

Gilliam: I mean, ENO asked me to do it and they caught me at a time when I was feeling fairly depressed about the movie business, so I said, yeah. And it became basically a dialogue, an argument, between me and mister dead Berlioz, and I think I had big leaps very quickly. There was no pressure. But then, I was surrounded by some really, really good people. I mean incredibly experienced. So with my ideas, they were the ones who helped me execute it, because having never done theatre before, so that was the learning part. I have to be honest. All the big ideas are mine.

This observer makes no claims regarding knowledge of Berlioz’s motivation, or any finer tunings of the composer’s musical inclinations. Regardless, the show was one of the best musical presentations I’ve witnessed, whether considering cohesive structure or abstract expressions. A great night of opera says everything, and less than enough.

It’s not hard to imagine Goethe himself having a few hearty grins at this latest adaption of his enduring interpretation of the ancient tale. Faust’s process of descent into the hellish madness of Mephistophele‘s lustful lure has seldom been represented as close to the extended grey areas between divinity and inevitable damnation Goethe portrayed.

Maybe Intendant Aviel Cahn said it best, with a new feather in his coordinator cap, as he surveyed the celebration afterward.

“It was an outstanding challenge to stage an opera by Terry Gilliam because he wants so much of everything. And when you get this, and I know what Terry’s vision was, I think he was quite happy tonight and that means we did a hell of a job. I’m very proud to have achieved this with a smaller crew, because the Flemish Opera doesn’t, of course, have the manpower or resources of English National Opera. It’s a great thing to start the season with.”


The scene was spectacular for any point of anybody’s calendar, and will hopefully generate a well deserved holiday surge for Vlaamse Opera. Ghent and Antwerp are each welcoming locales, with locations in easily accessible, interesting areas of town.

Cafes in the Ghent lobby and multiple neighboring locations for a quick, reasonably priced quaff or chomp make for a mini-La Scala type scene inside and out. At the very least, in this Ghent engagement, the product was equal to the most renown venues in terms of performance or perimeters.

Whether this revitalized opera grows international legs, and just how far that U-boat may float is a question, or quest, for the future.

As for Gilliam, it appeared he’s developed a taste for the operatic discipline. How that evolves in the face of other appetites is another matter for the sands of time. For this Faust incarnation, Gilliam proved to be a perfect choice. There were many moments of blazing glory that would stand proud in any house, or indeed, any era. Tonight, the honors belonged to him, and all the equally worthy contributing members of Vlaamse Opera.

For now, consider Berlioz’s voluptuously vicious vision of eternal truths intact and in bloom. In impressive Belgium, Le Damnation de Faust looked and sounded a lot like modernized redemption. Even, with ferocious fireworks; an aria of re-inspired resurrection.

Phillip Woolever

Click here for cast and production information.

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