Essays in damnable coherence

Terry Gilliam's courageously implausible operatic debut

Hector Berlioz

Jules Massenet
Covent Garden

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, May 27

Immanuel Kant answered the central question of his age with uncharacteristic brevity when, in 1784, he set about defining the concept of enlightenment in terms of “man’s emergence from his selfimposed immaturity”. His masterstroke was to look at a well-worn issue from a slightly different angle, conceiving of enlightenment less in terms of accrued knowledge or political organization and more as a state or process of mind. As with many of the philosopher’s precepts, the definition has a strongly moral character. The “immaturity” that obstructs rational autonomy – or self-government according to rational precepts – derives not from any “lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another”.

I know of no specific reference in Goethe’s writings to Kant’s essay (“What is Enlightenment?”, 1784), but it is likely he was acquainted with the text, or at least its basic argument. And Kant’s definition remains one of the best keys to understanding Goethe’s strongly protestant version of the Faust legend, in which the learned doctor is shown to sin less against God than against himself, choosing immediate access to knowledge over the Kantian process of acquiring it. For Goethe, famously, Faust’s misjudgement is forgivable. For Berlioz, who came to know the play in Gérard de Nerval’s 1828 translation (of which Goethe apparently approved), it evidently was not. In his own strongly idiosyncratic setting of the drama, La Damnation de Faust, the clue is in the title: the doctor’s transgressions against the demands both of reason and the heart permit no redemption.

It is interesting that Berlioz felt no compunction about altering the story so profoundly. In a musical context, his disgust at the then-widespread practice of tailoring historical scores to contemporary tastes was frequently expressed. When it came to the texts of his heroes – Virgil, Shakespeare and Goethe – the composer’s attitude was more liberal. As he expressed the matter in his Memoirs, referring to the criticism he received for setting the opening to La Damnation in Hungary, “I would have had no hesitation in taking him anywhere in the world if the work would have benefitted . . . . A person like Faust may after all have any journey ascribed to him, no matter how outlandish, without violence being done to plausibility”.

If Kant’s motto for Enlightenment was “Sapere Aude: Have courage to use your own understanding”, that of the film director Terry Gilliam, whom English National Opera have cleverly persuaded to direct its new staging of Berlioz’s “dramatic legend”, might well be “Demente Aude: Have courage to do violence to plausibility”. The former Python is an interesting choice for the job, given that many have long since written off the work as impossible to stage coherently. But it is precisely this incoherence which appeals to Gilliam. The constant interruption to the flow of action, of a piece with Berlioz’s broadside against the neoclassical pieties of unity of action, constitutes an opportunity to revel in the possibilities of modern stagecraft. Taking the composer at his word, Gilliam rescues Faust from Hungary and puts him firmly back in an Alpine landscape. Following a prologue, in which Christopher Purves’s suave and urbane Mephistopheles identifies mankind’s principle weakness as the desire to achieve his own perfection (and referring to Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” by way of illustration), the curtain rises on another scene borrowed from the visual arts: a mountain valley intended by the designer Hildegard Bechtler to echo the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich.

Yet the production which unfolds is about as far from painterly as it is possible to get. Barely for a second do things stand still. For most of the great choral or orchestral setpieces, Gilliam floods the stage with chorus members, themselves often directed by dancers, while the scenery is either moving or appearing to thanks to the video-artistry of Finn Ross. The historical time-frame moves quickly, too. Although the nineteenth- century setting returns in Faust’s dream towards the end of the Part One, in which the hero imagines himself to be Siegfried rescuing Marguerite’s Brünnhilde, reality – if one can call it that – has meanwhile accelerated: we are carried through a depiction of the First World War, sharply polarised in both comic and tragic guises, all the way to the Nuremburg Rally. As the student Brander’s transformation (by Mephistopheles) into Adolf Hitler nears its completion, Ayrian beauties strike modernist poses in front of a video-montage of scenes from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, and a sense of the audacity of Gilliam’s vision is replaced by one of its clarity. The iconography of Nazism has an unusual status. Without an acceptable role in normal contexts, it has become ubiquitous on stage and screen. Gilliam’s task has been to exploit its symbolism and ideology for something more substantial than its shock value. It is a considerable challenge, and yet the director somehow succeeds in creating a work that is dramatically, emotionally and philosophically acute. Gilliam allows the opera’s tragic heart to unfurl at the very point at which the barbarism of Nazi ideology first asserts itself unequivocally – on Kristallnacht, when Marguerite removes her blonde wig to reveal the dark curls beneath. This brings Gilliam’s Faust into direct conflict with Berlioz’s, but the former’s guilt when, along with so many of his countrymen, he turns a blind eye is compelling, and makes good sense of his musical and dramatic fate.

Gilliam’s remarkable operatic debut also testifies to the knowledge and craftsmanship of his designers and associate director, Leah Hausman, as well as to that of an extended company and stage-hands running at full stretch. The aptness and extravagance of the director’s vision for the work might have been guessed at, though the quality of both the set-pieces and their attention to detail are exceptional: the grotesque dance of the First World War heads of state to Berlioz’s colourful take on the Rákóczy march; numerous small touches, such as the soldier who kneels down to share a game with a boy waiting for the transport, both ignorant of what lies ahead, or the twist in the hair-raising motorcycle- and-sidecar race to the abyss (again, brilliantly rendered by Ross’s video projections) in which it is eventually Faust who drives himself to destruction, or the sinisterly comic way in which Mephistopheles, resolutely ignorant of the Kantian virtues, wears a pretied bow-tie.

But in the end, the most impressive thing about the show is the musical quality of the stage direction. Time is found for the more reflective choruses to achieve their dramatic and expressive potential, and space is given to the singers: the surrounding frenetic movement does not impede their often static solos. This allows some fine vocal performances to come to the fore, notably from Purves and Christine Rice, a sensitively drawn Marguerite. Peter Hoare – with a sweep of ginger hair intended to evoke Friedrich’s Wayfarer – is energetically committed to his lead role, but the part of Faust is a thankless one, and it demands a wider vocal range than he possesses. It may be that his acting decided the casting. On the orchestral side, some oddly lacklustre conducting from Edward Gardner failed to drive the score to its expressive limit, but there were moments of beauty nonetheless, not least from the chorus.

The fate of Goethe’s other great tragic protagonist would not, I think, benefit particularly from being set in the Third Reich. Intended by its author as an object lesson in the perils of excessive “sensibility”, the hero of The Sorrows of Young Werther in fact became a poster-boy for the life lived according to the code of feeling, and inspired many unfortunate imitations. Although Faust has proved more popular as a subject for musical treatment, the love-sick Werther’s downward trajectory from a moment’s euphoria to his bungled suicide is more obviously suited to opera – even if, for once, it is the male rather than the female lead who dies.

The Royal Opera’s current production of Massenet’s classic setting, now in its first revival, is also the work of a man, like Gilliam, better known as a film director. In other respects, Benoît Jacquot’s staging could not be less like ENO’s Faust. Profoundly still, the side-lit singers appear on the stage like patches of light and shadow brushed onto Charles Edwards’s Hammershøi-inspired sets, framed to landscape proportions by a second black proscenium. Only one detail is dynamic: when the fourth act opens with a view of the nerve centre of the epistolary drama, Werther’s little room hovers isolated at the very back of the stage area and the crumpled poet himself is barely discernible. Perfectly in perspective to begin with, the room gradually moves to the front of the stage during the course of the intermezzo, with the result that the background perspective eventually appears exploded – a nice design corollary of the hyper-real emotional landscape. Jacquot’s tactful production is well suited to the opera, for the characters can easily lose their dramatic weight; they balance on a thin line between tired stereotypes and trying adolescents: push them too hard and they buckle under the weight of their symbolic burden.

The main story, though, was the return to Covent Garden of the star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, whose recent history of delicate operations and embarrassing cancellations has left many wondering whether he will ever regain the form which just a few years ago held audiences spellbound. Werther is a tough role, so the Mexican was evidently confident about his return and, on balance the confidence was justified. The opening found him in diffident voice, but already at “Lorsque l’enfant” we could hear something of the old magic. By the end, abetted by Sophie Koch’s faultless and deeply sympathetic Charlotte, he left no room for doubt. There is not the same raw power as before, perhaps but Villazón’s sureness in the role’s difficult high registers, and subtlety in its even more difficult emotional spectrum, gave sceptics plenty to think about.

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