Taking his bow at the opening night curtain call of “The Damnation of Faust,” first-time opera helmer Terry Gilliam shrugged off applause and generously waved towards his creative team. As well he might. This engrossing, audacious production – the finest opera debut since Anthony Minghella’s “Madam Butterfly” in 2005 at this address – is a triumph of teamwork, both musical and dramatic.
Traditionalists argue that Berlioz’s work, originally written for the concert hall, loses when performed as an opera. Stagecraft, they allege, draws attention away from the composer’s musical intentions, most notably the vivid and varied orchestration. Worse, it underlines its lack of character-driven drama. But Gilliam’s vision adds cause and effect to a piece which usually, to put it mildly, has longeurs.
Indications that Gilliam and his team are in command of the material are clear from the outset. An opening scene is added in which Christopher Purves’s marvelously supercilious Mephistopheles sets up, and from thereon runs, the story. This devil is not some generalised nightmare figure, but a Nazi leader made gleamingly malicious by Purves’s eerily calm, focused singing.
Adding a Nazi overtone is a routinely overstated directorial gesture, but in this strikingly coherent case it gives the work creedance by creating a journey for Faust out of the splendour of High Northern Romanticism and into the stark austerity of Nazi Germany.
That’s given vivid expression by Hildegard Bechtler’s bold designs (lit with glowing intensity by Peter Mumford). Her stage pictures shift from a Caspar David Friedrich-inspired painting splashed across the giant back wall – this is London’s largest stage – to potent clusters of characters looking like escapees from a George Grosz painting, and Marguerite (Christine Rice) trapped aboard a train with fellow travelers unknowingly en route to a concentration camp.
Winningly, everyone’s journey is made as powerfully metaphorical as it is literal, largely due to the detailed, animated staging which runs to the horrible wit of a display of Nuremberg Olympics-style calisthenics. Additional actors and a bulked-up chorus (with diction as impressively assured as the sense of dramatic purpose) give punch to Berlioz’s extended orchestral and choral passages.
Peter Hoare’s detailed Faust gives the character as much dynamism as is possible out of Berlioz’s construction – he is very much a character to whom things happen rather than the other way around. The vocal writing is perilously high but Hoare only rarely sounds under pressure.
Christine Rice is not ideal casting as Marguerite. Her dark-toned, beautifully controlled singing finds everything in the role but welcoming warmth. The latter quality, is however, there in abundance in the colors drawn out of the orchestra by conductor Edward Gardner who gives the music real zest.
Until now, English National Opera’s policy of hiring famous, self-confessed opera novices has been a case of “all gong and no dinner.” Productions like Sally Potter’s crass, passionless “Carmen” and Mike Figgis’s shockingly inept “Lucrezia Borgia” yielded acres of pre-publicity but the shows themselves couldn’t be revived. Gilliam leads a superbly thought-through, visceral production of an opera that many houses wouldn’t consider staging. They may now change their minds.