When English National Opera struck a Faustian bargain with Terry Gilliam, the 70-year-old American film-maker and former Monty Python animator, many thought it was selling its soul to a Mephisto who would run riot over Berlioz’s “dramatic legend”. Well, he does run riot – but far from desecrating the work, he ennobles it, offering a display of stage wizardry that remains true to Berlioz’s vision, even when it appears to contradict it.
Like the piece itself, Gilliam’s staging plays with the Faust legend without exhausting it. Gilliam does what the German theatre has been doing for decades: he draws parallels with the Third Reich, depicting Faust’s trajectory and Marguerite’s martyrdom as a metaphor for man’s reckless stupidity.
The stations in Faust’s career become illustrations of the German experience, embracing romantic landscapes, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler’s Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden and Kristallnacht.
There’s one problem. Berlioz’s Faust is sympathetic, resisting Mephisto till near the end and capitulating in an attempt to save Marguerite, depicted here as a Jew heading for the gas chambers. But such is the power of Gilliam’s uproarious anti-rationalism, anchored by Hildegard Bechtler’s stunning designs, that these crossed wires don’t matter.
Maybe Gilliam’s Faust is the western conscience trying to make sense of chaos. Maybe he is the German soul, complicit in the spoiling of civilisation. The test of Gilliam’s acumen lies not in his self-confessedly messy “concept”, nor in his virtuoso array of film-collage, trompe l’oeil and coup de théâtre. No, it’s his willingness, at the right moments, to let the music speak.
Peter Hoare, singing with juice and heft, plays Faust as a red-headed marionette. Christine Rice enjoys a triumph as Marguerite. Christopher Purves is a suave Mephistopheles, and Edward Gardner chorales orchestra and chorus with ravishing sensitivity.