‘Do the secrets of science unlock the soul?’
A question for our times, reflecting one of the reasons the Faust story is so popular at the moment. Terry Gilliam’s production of Hector Berlioz’s opera is ENO’s second telling of the legend this year, both based on Goethe’s German Romantic version, not Marlowe’s thirster for mastery through knowledge.
But when the question’s being asked directly of the audience, by a charismatic Mephistopheles who’s arrived with a flash and a bang before the orchestra’s played a note, you’d take it at more than face value. I hope. Leonardo’s Vitruvian man is a recurring motif on the frontcloth between scenes, and in his spoken prologue Mephistopheles – a seductive and terrifying Christopher Purves – tells us explicitly that Faust is trying to perfect himself along these lines: ‘Luckily for me’. And with the Devil as our impresario, the overture begins.
Berlioz himself called the piece a ‘concert opera’. With its extended instrumental ballets and spurious choral set-pieces it lacks narrative drive, and the libretto is all emotional expression with the vaguest nods towards telling the story. So trying for a production that was ‘true to the text’ would leave director and audience floundering. Instead, film director Terry Gilliam decided to treat the opera effectively as subtext to another storyline. And the storyline he’s added is that of Germany from the late 19th century to World War II.
I know, Nazis. If you’d described it to me thus, ‘Mid-19th century romantic opera of Faust, used to portray rise of Nazism,’ I’d probably never have gone to see it. Which would have been an enormous loss. The Nazis, Hitler and the holocaust are shorthand for evil today. The merest hint of the Nuremberg rallies or blond Aryan hikers is enough to invoke the chill of totalitarianism and mass murder in any audience. Which makes it the hallmark, usually, of a lazy artistic imagination. Out-of-the-box evil – works every time. It’s the Mr Muscle of emotional response. But this production is far from lazy. Instead of using the descent of Germany into fascism as an emotional underscore to another story, Gilliam uses the emotional impact of the music and the vocal lines to underscore a thoughtful re-telling of history.
At times, the fit is almost too perfect. Faust takes joy in the simplicity and power of nature, standing in a landscape taken straight from Romantic painting, all mists and mountains. And that is, after all, the period in which the opera was written, not long after Goethe’s poem which inspired it. Some of the most beautiful musical passages, such as the romantic love duet between Faust and Marguerite, are simply given room to speak for themselves. But at other times the juxtaposition is ironic, turning in a moment from comedy to chilling horror. When Mephistopheles takes Faust to a beer hall, the nonsense songs about rats and fleas begin as cheerfully mindless drinking songs, all companionable rowdy fun. By the end, the communists have been beaten up and killed, the swastika unveiled, and Jews pilloried as six-legged capitalists. That the crowd of thugs sings a long amen to the dead ‘rat’ in rich counterpoint only adds to the sinister threat.
So the comedy points up the darkness of the story. Peter Hoare’s Faust, a virtuoso performance as both clown and tenor, is an innocent swept along into the brownshirts and then the army, often trying to escape back to the simple, blackboard-and-chalk cube of his studies. But Mephistopheles is much too powerful and seductive. Despite the Devil’s opening question, there’s little sign that science is responsible for the burgeoning evil. Faust, certainly, sees it as a refuge from the world. Vitruvian man is more out of kilter every time he reappears, till his outstretched self hangs upside down at last. Towards the end, despairing and missing his love Marguerite, Faust lies tossing books into the flames.
Of course, the production is not an historical examination of how Hitler came to power. It does trace the trajectory from the Great Powers’ carve up of Europe, through the horrors of World War I, leaving a demoralised people (and Faust) open to the seductions of order, simplicity, a project for the future. By drawing on images from painting, cartoons, theatre and film of the time, the production is more a history of the spirits of the times, the emotions and myths. The simple folk rituals of the first scene are echoed later when, in a glorious parody of Wagner being perfomed for Hitler, Faust gets to play Siegfried after the Rhine Maidens’ ballet.
But it’s a night at the opera, not a dialectical analysis of Romantic-into-modern Germany. And as a dramatisation of a distinctly undramatic musical work, it works. Letting the words float on the surface of a powerful drama, instead of having to carry the narrative, takes the pressure off the libretto’s weak points, and lets its more poetic passages fly free. The sensitivity of the vocal lines and instrumentalisation – sometimes just a lone voice on one note, with a solo viola, sometimes hair-raising choral harmonies with brass, drums and a full wall-of-sound string section – stand out.
The problem is - where does it end? Berlioz finishes with Faust damned and Marguerite’s soul rising to heaven in an uplifting chorus of female voices. Which you could interpret as Mephistopheles keeping his bargain, as he’s promised Faust that, in return for his soul, Marguerite will be saved. So though Faust is damned, he’s morally redeemed in our eyes, by having sacrificed his soul to save her.
In this opera we see only Man and the Devil, no sign of God except the off-stage singing of the faithful. So the sacrifice of a man’s soul to save another’s life is an act of free will worthy of a Romantic hero. But in this production, we’ve already seen Marguerite taken away, separated from her luggage, loaded onto the dark train. Knowing how the story ended in history, we’re not hopeful that this bargain can be kept. We do see Faust damned, the male chorus singing hellish chants amid red smoke, and Mephistopheles affirming that Faust belongs to him for ever. But how can a story of redemption be salvaged from the Holocaust?
So the ethereal harmonies of Berlioz’ finale are as chillingly ironic as the jollity of the beer-hall songs. As their song welcomes Marguerite into heaven, the dark-coated chorus gaze on a pile of human bodies. And as we’ve just seen Mephistopheles swap his bloodstained vest for a clean white shirt and suit, we know he’s ready to start again somewhere else. (In fact – shaved head, vest and braces, was that a crude allusion to fringe far-right skinheads? Mr Gilliam, we expect better!)
In a post-Romantic, postmodern, post-Holocaust world, is redemption impossible? Does the urge to perfect oneself, or humanity, inevitably lead to the gas chambers? By looking at this historical trajectory through the Devil’s narrative frame, we are forced to answer yes. The Romantic vision was of its time, and we couldn’t share it as its contemporaries did, even if we wanted to. But we should remember that this production is also a product of its historical moment.
As a production of a near-unstageable opera, it’s tremendous, rich, humorous and original, more than doing justice to the music and the uneven libretto. But as a view of humanity’s capacity to transcend, it’s soaked to the bone with the pessimism of our time.