Terry Gilliam’s Gas-Chamber ‘Faust’ Is Sick Joke: Review

Christine Rice (Marguerite), Christopher Purves (Mephistopheles, in drag), and ensemble in "The Damnation of Faust" directed by Terry Gilliam at English National Opera. Marguerite, a young Jewish woman, is captured by Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Photographer: Tristram Kenton/ENO via Bloomberg

Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python cartoonist and Hollywood film maker, serves up impressive spectacle and insalubrious taste in his Holocaust-based “The Damnation of Faust” at English National Opera in London.

The opera novice turns Berlioz’s 1846 opera-oratorio into a gallows-humor show about the rise of National Socialism.

Faust (Peter Hoare, made to look like the odd anti-hero of David Lynch’s film “Eraserhead”) is a dreamy German thinker. He first appears against the kind of sublime romantic landscape made famous by painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Hildegard Bechtler creates stylized sets with plenty of wow factor.

Then along comes jolly Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves), who lures Faust into the bombastic grandeur of Nazism. He even conjures up a razzle-dazzle choreographed recreation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to tempt him.

The members of the somewhat portly male chorus, in white shorts and stomach-squeezing corsets, do their best to look like Aryan gods.

Faust falls in love with a young Jewish girl, Marguerite (Christine Rice), and then abandons her. Marguerite is herded off to Auschwitz by the Nazis.

When Mephistopheles offers Faust the chance to rescue her, it leads to the highlight of an evening already bursting with surprising theatrical flair. They jump in a motorbike and sidecar, and take a thrilling night ride among dazzling, whirling video projections.

Real Flames

At the orchestral climax, Faust learns that he has been duped. He’s flung into the gas chamber himself. There are exciting explosions and real flames. He rises from the fire transformed into a surreal human swastika. Flakes of charred flesh then gently flutter over Marguerite’s body, while a celestial choir hymns her soul.

It looks expensive, and feels cheap as hell.

Should the Holocaust be trivialized this way for the sake of a coup de theatre? Is a jokey, cool, ironic tone really appropriate for the subject? Gilliam offers no new insights into anti-Semitism or the rise of German militarism.

Kristallnacht as a lively production number. Dancing Nazis. It comes perilously close to a non-parody version of Mel Brooks’s fiction play “Springtime for Hitler,” without the rigorous framing device of “The Producers” to make such a risk of taste acceptable.

Musically, standards are high. Conductor Edward Gardner delights in Berlioz’s exquisite orchestration. Hoare sings with a good ringing timbre, even if his voice tires by the end. Rice brings vocal splendor and touching pathos to Marguerite. Purves, as the uber-Nazi Mephistopheles, offers us a silken baritone, conspiratorial winks at the audience, and deep throaty chuckles.

It’s disturbing, but not in the way intended. Rating: **.

Intense Villazon

There’s another opera production by a film maker at Covent Garden. Benoit Jacquot’s dull 18th-century period staging of Massenet’s “Werther” is revived as a vehicle for tenor Roland Villazon.

Villazon leaped to superstardom at the Royal Opera House in 2004 as Hoffmann, took on some heavy roles, and then suffered a series of vocal setbacks and cancellations.

They’ve taken their toll on his voice, which now has a touch of raspiness in the formerly firm baritonal register and a constrained, veiled sound at the top.

His acting is intense as ever, his stage presence magnetic and his musicality impeccable. A lesser Villazon is still a better proposition than plenty of other tenors. It all adds pathos to the unfortunate loss of a great voice.

For the rest, the production trundles along dutifully. Mezzo Sophie Koch sings with shining richness as love-interest Charlotte. Antonio Pappano’s conducting is passionate, and sensitive to Villazon’s vocal state. Rating: **.

“The Damnation of Faust” is at ENO through June 7. Information: http:// www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200. “Werther” is on until May 21 at the Royal Opera House, http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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