Terry Gilliam has made a few of my favourite films; Brazil, Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. Some of his other ones are just plain silly. He has never understood the term ‘less is more’. Bless him for that.
So I thought his OTT style would be well-suited to the opera stage, and when a friend offered me a ticket I jumped at it. This latest production by the ENO is in English and set in Nazi Germany.
I must admit I didn’t know the story before I went. I had a rough idea about faust selling his soul to the devil and all that, but no more. So, here is my own personal understanding of what took place on the stage in front of me last night (bear in mind a lot of this may be incorrect; it’s only my interpretation):
Baldy devilly man Mephistopheles introduces us to the story. Cut to Faust having a nice time in the forest writing on some strange unfolding blackboard (why?), singing badly. He is accosted by 3 young people and then moves to higher ground where later he sees a load of forest people come out to play at night. One is a man with a beard dressed as the May Queen who gets a bit fresh with F.
Then a handful of kings and heads of different Euro lands try to carve up the map but it turns into war... Faust stumbling through fields of dead people, and he ends up performing surgery on the wounded. (Oh, so he’s a doctor? Was I supposed to know that?).
Meph takes F to a beer keller full of horrible bad people. F not impressed. F leaves disgusted, and sleeps.
Meph takes him to a big party of toffs in the forest. Faust thinks one woman is his true love Marguerite (who hell she? Where did she pop up from? Had I missed something?)
F and Meph in Marg’s flat. F sniffing her pillow and being weird and creepily obsessed. He hides behind curtain. She comes back, puts on a blond wig to hide her Jew-ness and sings about some old King bloke. Later F appears, she is really pleased to see him and they dry hump on the bed urged on my Meph. Outside Jews being beaten and put on trains. Marg arrested too and somehow everyone knows what she’s been up to.
F goes back to the forest and sulks. Meph says if F will serve him forever he will take F to Marg. Great scene with bike journey. Meph has lied – bike crashes. F dies and goes to hell. Turns out Meph only wanted F’s soul. Never trust a devil eh?! Final scene lots of dead people heaped up in a pile reminicient of Belson.
Many of Gilliam’s visuals were really clever. And just as well, as I needed the them to get my mind off some of the dreadful music. In fact I was rather bored by it in many places esp as in this promo Gilliam talks about Berlioz’s loud dramatic score; that you 'resonate' when you hear his music. Not so for me. I had been looking forward to losing myself in the loud and powerful… I cannot recall a single refrain.
And then there’s the singing. Opera is often maligned by many people for it just sounding like someone is just giving us a bad running commentary about what they are doing in the ‘I am singing what I am doing' style. It's sort of like Facebook on stage.
Perhaps I should start singing, “I am sitting AT my comPUterrrr…. I am writing a blog POST… the weather outside is sUnny…”? The caps are there for emphasis/loudness to highlight the parts that this style of singing highlights – the wrong, most meaningless, word in almost every instance.
My conclusion as to how all this happens is that this may not have been a problem sung in the original French… perhaps the words that need emphasis fall in the correct place/ on the right note? But then that doesn’t solve my other observation that in many cases what is being said-sung seems to be completely at odds with the what the orchestra is playing.
Oh I dunno. It looked good though. And I am glad I went.
Pics above include devils from Cornhill and Praed Street