Almost exactly six years since it was unveiled in London, Terry Gilliam’s take on Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust has made it to Berlin. The show essentially maps a century of German culture from high Romanticism to the Holocaust onto Berlioz’s laconic narrative. Seeing it again in the German capital – it’s also been at Opera Vlaanderen in Antwerp and the Teatro Massimo in Palermo in the interim – is therefore to see it within a somewhat more loaded context.

Florian Boesch (Méphistophélès), Charles Castronovo (Faust) and Dancers © Matthias Baus
Florian Boesch (Méphistophélès), Charles Castronovo (Faust) and Dancers
© Matthias Baus

As before, the production’s greatest strength is also for me its main problem. Gilliam undeniably puts on a great show, and the stagecraft (sets by Hildegard Bechtler) is terrifically inventive. We whizz through from an evocative Casper David Friedrichscape (wonderfully lit by Peter Mumford), through a witty re-enactment of the political wranglings of the First World War, the Munich Putsch (Jan Martiník’s Brander becoming Hitler) and the Berlin Olympics to get to the height of the Third Reich: a malleable street scene, Marguerite’s room above one of the buildings, in which we witness escalating anti-Semitic violence.

But while it’s a great show, the main question is whether or not it should be, given what it portrays. And I don’t think it represents a sense of humour failure to object to the alarmingly glib fashion in which Gilliam presents this history: it does, after all, encompasses the most unfathomable horrors as well as some natty costumes.

Charles Castronovo (Faust), Magdalena Kožená (Marguerite) and Florian Boesch (Méphistophélès) © Matthias Baus
Charles Castronovo (Faust), Magdalena Kožená (Marguerite) and Florian Boesch (Méphistophélès)
© Matthias Baus

Right from Méphistophélès’s Mein Kampf gag before curtain-up, the production’s tone is worryingly inconsistent, veering between high camp and to sudden attempts at gravitas. The Nazi dance routines à la Springtime for Hitler are all very well, but they fit ill with the supposed seriousness of Gilliam’s whole Konzept as I understand it: portraying the idea that the intensity of German Romanticism in the 19th century laid the foundations for events of the 20th. It also leads to a very muddled sense of the characters, and a fundamental disregard of the story that Berlioz – however fragmentarily – is telling.

Marguerite here is Jewish, but seems to harbour fantasies about being Aryan. Her crime (we are told through a sly adjustment of text in Part Four) becomes her faith, not the accidental murder of her mother. “D’amour l’ardente flamme” turns into song of defiance (Magdalena Kožená’s beautifully sung performance accordingly conveyed more steely defiance than any sense of the erotic) as she and her fellow Jews are forced into railway carriages. Faust’s final pact brings about her redemption, as she is sung into the gates of (a decidedly Catholic) heaven by celestial choirs on stage. But the rest of the dead around her – similarly condemned for their faith, presumably – apparently gain no such concession.

Florian Boesch (Méphistophélès) © Matthias Baus
Florian Boesch (Méphistophélès)
© Matthias Baus

Charles Castronovo is an excellent Faust, his tenor clean and elegant, but his character is largely reduced to an observer of the history unfolding around him. Occasionally he joins in, and often he retreats to his box, adorned inside with scientific scribblings, but it’s never fully clear if he’s the embodiment of the German spirit or just an onlooker, if he’s active or passive.

There’s a similar issue with Méphistophélès. Florian Boesch presides over the whole evening with impressive charisma and malevolent charm, and sings with authority and style. But portraying Méphistophélès as a devilish MC, steering the course of this history with clicks of his fingers and a troupe of slithering minions, seems only to undermine or distinctly muddy the production’s main premise, as does Faust’s own eventual damnation in something akin to a regulation fire-and-brimstone hell.

Of course, the production is clearly designed not to be taken literally, to simply be experienced instead as a nightmarish, grotesque swirl of images. On that level it works, I suppose, and it is impressively executed no doubt. But history is also a serious business – as too, in fact, is Berlioz’s work. Gilliam’s production rides roughshod over both. 

© Matthias Baus
© Matthias Baus

Happily, Simon Rattle’s presence in the pit, as well as the fine cast, ensured at least that Berlioz’s score was treated seriously. Rattle conducted with an ideal sense of clarity and balance, but allowed the music’s more outrageous moments to register on their own terms, offering up its extremes in all their raw power. He elicited playing from the Staatskapelle remarkable for its quicksilver virtuosity and eloquence. The chorus and children’s chorus were outstanding, too, not least in throwing themselves into whatever the production threw at them.

There was no faulting any of the performers, in fact, including also an extended troupe of extras and dancers. But for me the shallow superficiality of Gilliam’s staging remains deeply problematic.