Sympathy for the Devil: Alexandra Coghlan on Terry Gilliam's Triumphant Experiment with Opera

Article excerpt

The Damnation of Faust

London Coliseum, London WC2

Take an opera that isn't really an opera, a director with no experience in the opera house, a huge cast (and even bigger budget) and you have a Faust whose damnation seems assured. Add a dressing-up box of operatic cliches (you can never go wrong with a swastika) and the critics start warming their hands with the hellfire. But nobody told Terry Gilliam that this was supposed to be a failure. The result is anarchic, at times naive, but a triumph of the genre.

Even the staunchest of English National Opera's champions have faltered of late. Hiring directors from film and theatre to bring new life to opera was a promising scheme but, after the failures of Rufus Norris's Don Giovanni and Mike Figgis's Lucrezia Borgia, many started to wonder when the theory would translate to success. Gilliam has silenced us all.

Paying only lip-service to Goethe's original, Hector Berlioz's legende dramatique is more meditation than dramatisation: it is an awkward hybrid of opera and oratorio, in which characters anticipate, yearn and recall but rarely get around to any action. With one of the composer's finest orchestral scores, the danger is always that Faust and Marguerite will get lost among the instrumental set pieces, their story dissolved into a Romantic tone poem.

Yet it is precisely this abstraction that makes The Damnation of Faust such a good fit for Gilliam, giving his exuberant talent the space it needs. With the help of a seasoned production team, Gilliam weaves his new narrative and film projections into Berlioz's tapestry. …