When Hector Berlioz first read Gérard de Nerval's translation of Goethe's Faust, he was entranced: he could not put the book down and worked it into a suite entitled Eight Scenes from Faust. Nearly twenty years later, he came back to the material and expanded it into a larger work La Damnation de Faust, but he was perhaps uncertain as to exactly what it was he had created. A series of scenes somewhere between an opera and an oratorio, he eventually labelled it a “légende dramatique.”

Peter Hoare as Faust and Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles, © Tristram Kenton
Peter Hoare as Faust and Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles,
© Tristram Kenton

In the ENO’s new production, conducted by Edward Gardner, the music is an unalloyed treat: passionate, romantic, melodic, inventive. This is a league away from bel canto opera: the focus is not on vocal pyrotechnics but on the use of voice to enhance the mood and atmosphere conjured by Goethe’s poetry. Gardner’s conducting was exemplary, allowing the music to breathe and tell its story, and the work's three principal soloists were all top class. Christopher Purves turned in a fabulous performance as Mephistopheles: sneering, dominating, self-satisfied and totally evil, seeking nothing other than to satisfy his wicked sense of humour by playing with Faust’s soul. Christine Rice’s Marguerite comes into the spotlight in part III with her ballad about the King of Thule, which she sang quite beautifully, and she and Peter Hoare were superb in their subsequent duet. Hoare sang the title role with great emotion and immaculate control of line and dynamics. He has a clear and impeccably melodic voice which I’m not sure is perfectly suited to the role - I occasionally wished for something a bit richer and rougher - but you couldn’t fault the performance.

Wonderful as the music was, one sensed that this wasn’t why most people had come. The production, by Terry Gilliam, was a significant work of art in itself. The episodic nature of La Damnation de Faust makes it difficult to stage as a coherent narrative of the Faust story: Gilliam’s solution to this is to stage a totally different narrative in parallel, covering the development of German art and history from the romantic period through to the Third Reich. Like much of Gilliam’s work through the years, the staging was done with immense power and extraordinary invention. We had tableaux straight out of German high romantic style of a man standing on a crag against a sunlit landscape. We had Faust in his cell, covered in chalked equations, whose walls had an Escher-like distorted perspective, as World War I battles raged across a screen in front. In a mesmerising scene, generals dressed in their national uniforms cut up the cake of Europe, leaving Germany with the smallest piece. We had Nazi rallies, balls, evocations of Kristallnacht. The fleas which Mephistopheles enjoins the listeners to squash in the famous Song of the flea metamorphose into Jews. We were even given a cameo of the ring of fire scene from Siegfried. I could name dozens of other memorable visual effects.

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with the Faust story? For the first three quarters of the work, I didn’t think it had very much to do with it at all. In an interview in the programme notes, Gilliam explains his artistic motives at some length, but I didn’t find myself making many connections. It was like seeing two shows at the same time, both of exceptionally high quality: a Gilliam visual piece about German history, and a Berlioz work about Faust. These two shows shared a mood - seeing Faust led to infernal damnation by Mephistopheles has plenty of emotional resonance with Germany led to earthly damnation by Hitler - but that was about all.

All this changed for me in the fourth part, from the moment when Faust burns his books and moving on to his epic journey with Mephistopheles towards what Faust thinks is the rescue of Marguerite but is in fact his descent into hell. This included several of the most stunning visual effects of all, which I won’t spoil by repeating. For the last half-hour, the production and both stories seemed to me totally in sync, with the power of each adding to the other.

My purist tendencies incline me to wish for something that was a bit more Faustian and a bit less separate, but I was won over by the sheer inventive brilliance of Gilliam’s work. This production of La Damnation de Faust may be something of an operatic oddity, but the coupling of Gilliam’s innovation and an all round excellent musical performance makes it well worth watching.