I’m a bit surprised that Berlioz’ 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini hasn’t come my way before. It’s got all the operatic elements; romance, politics, murder (and the Pope) etc and some really rather good music. There’s a lovely duet between Cellini and his girl, Teresa, in the first act and Cellini’s aria Sur les monts les plus sauvages is long and demanding in the way that Rossini writes long and demanding tenor arias. The plot maybe has a few holes. One might expect that after the pope has decreed that Cellini will be hanged if he doesn’t finish a statue by nightfall that he might just get on with it rather than running around fighting duels and stuff but there you have it. It’s French opera after all.
Last Friday the BBC broadcast the English National Opera production of Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust directed by former Python Terry Gilliam. This was filmed back in May at the Coliseum and got positive to glowing reviews for its visual inventiveness. So how well did it come over as a TV broadcast?
The bottom line is “probably less well than in the theatre”. Gilliam’s approach to staging this almost unstageable “opera” is to treat us to a visual romp through German history from the late 19th century through WW1 to Auschwitz and in between we get lots of Nazis and Jews. There is heavy use of projection, film and special effects and one imagines it must have been incredibly spectacular in the theatre. Unfortunately much of this is lost in the filming for TV. There are certainly some arresting moments but not enough to keep one locked into the action and the director’s vision. And, once when starts to ‘lose the plot’ the more inconsistent and incongruous much of it seems. It doesn’t help that there are long passages where the orchestra is playing and action is going on on stage and it all feels a bit more like a movie soundtrack than an opera. Also, of course it being the ENO, it’s in English. The broadcast subtitled the chorus but not the soloists which was a bit odd and certainly made things harder to follow. The biggest dramatic problem I had was with the treatment of Marguerite. She’s Jewish but seems to have a serious “Aryan wannabee” complex. There’s a bizarre scene where she comes home, lights a menorah, puts on a blonde, pigtailed wig and swoons over a giant poster of a ideally beautiful Hitler Youth on the wall of the building opposite. She then takes Faust, who looks more like George Bernard Shaw on an off day, as her lover, apparently as some sort of substitute. Marguerite is then carted off to Auschwitz and death but there’s no sin here. She’s killed because she’s Jewish along with hordes of others. So there is nothing to redeem which makes the final scene really weird. Marguerite ascends to (Christian) heaven to words that are overtly Christian sung by a chorus of gassed Jewish corpses. So spectacular but a bit incoherent and on TV the incoherence tends to overwhelm the spectacular. I really would pay to see this in the theatre though.
Pretty good performances on the whole. Peter Hoare is Faust and he is convincing though somewhat overchallenged by some of his higher passages. Christopher Purves is near perfect as Mephistopheles (though surely the Prince of Darkness would not be caught wearing a clip-on tie!). He’s sardonic, funny and vocally and dramatically assured. Christine Rice is vocally excellent and does her best with the odd Marguerite she has to project. I wish Edward Gardner in the pit had managed a bit more drama in the orchestral passages. With Nazis on stage executing Communists, smashing Jewish shops and staging the odd Nuremberg rally it was far too easy to forget there was any music going on.
Here’s Marguerite with her pigtails and menorah
And, to emphasise the subtlety of it all, here’s Faust crucified on a swastika with Adolph going nuts in the background.