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The Damnation of Faust review

Most opera aficionados would not think Terry Gilliam’s name to be synonymous with the form and yet his first foray in opera depicts the director, made famous for directing film and providing the animation in Monty Pythons Flying Circus, making a seamless transition.

He decided to adapt Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and made the daring decision to set it during the emergence of the Nazi party in Germany.

Before the curtains are raised, Mephisto or the more commonly used Satan enters with his shadowy minions and takes his seat to the side of the stage where he awaits the moment to pounce on the increasingly vulnerable Faust. His minions cavort around the stage like devilish ballerinas, moving around with their twisted and contorted limbs. This immediately sets the precedent that the devil will be an active puppeteer and the insidious cause of the tragedy that is to follow.

For those who don’t know the narrative, it tells the tale of Faust, a man disenchanted with his life and contemplating suicide. He is visited by Mephisto who lures him into a world of dangerous temptation by offering him fulfillment of his innermost desires to which the parochial Faust excitedly accepts. His journey then becomes increasingly more fraught as Mephisto reduces Faust to a mere puppet, casting him into increasingly ominous scenarios where swastikas are ubiquitous and the pernicious far-right ideology is beginning to take effect.

Gilliam is perhaps best known for his capacity to harness his tremendous imagination and create a sumptuous feast of visual stimulation with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys being two particularly apt examples. He has not let his reputation down where each backdrop is rich in detail and bustling with activity. He also integrates the use of projections, tragically illustrating soldiers in combat being a particularly poignant example.

Mephisto is masterfully played by Christopher Purves; dressed immaculately, oozing charm and insouciance with a suitably powerful voice, seducing all those who cross his path. Pater Hoare’s Faust is also brilliantly played, with a shock of hair, looking every inch the capricious eccentric he purports to be.

I liked the pace of the piece where the audience are gradually reminded of the ominous milieu we are observing and the evil that is in motion. The growing evil however is slowly unravelled as Mephisto manipulates each situation to bring Faust closer and closer to relinquishing his soul. The Nazi ideology turns into acts of extreme and violent prejudice as the benign glow of the early scenes are replaced by the malevolent dark as a feeling of foreboding and an inevitability of tragedy begins to emerge.

This was truly a wonderful piece of opera from a director who might just have found his calling.

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