19 May 2011

Faust at The Coliseum

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.
And a good thing is I now have this on my brain.

Pics above include devils from Cornhill and Praed Street


  1. Excellent write-up Jane!

    What an extraordinary evening it was, and the deconstruction of the story session in the lively pub up the road, together with the encounters with the string of terribly polite Big Issue sellers, was great fun too.

    It's a rather incredible story, isn't it? If you want to attempt to start understanding it, then get hold of the Wordsworth Classics of World Literature edition of Johann Gambolputty Wolfgang von Goethe's 1806 classic Faust- the edition includes the great sequel, The Urfaust, and work through the surprisingly easy to read prose, sipping on a nice big glass of Merlot or Pinot Grigio, whilst listening to the 2001 recording of La Damnation De Faust, all in French, so the words won't annoy you, by Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra.

    Or if that sounds like too much hard work, just sit back and watch Peter Cook & Dudley Moore's Bedazzled- that won't explain whatever went on at last night's production, but it's fun all the same and gives you a rough idea of part of the Faustian legend.

  2. Great post, Jane! I didn't know the full back-story of Faust either. Thanks for the explanation!

  3. Alex Borchardt19 May 2011 at 15:40

    There are so many different retellings of the Faustian Legend, that we probably all know little bits of it.... but I have a bit more in depth understanding of it now that I have read Jane's in depth critique of it!

    Alex (not so anonymous this time!)

  4. Alex Borchardt19 May 2011 at 16:06

    So, let's start a collection of Faust related stories. Here are my suggestions:

    Early "Faustbooks":

    1. Das Wagnerbuch (1593)
    2. Das Widmann'sche Faustbuch (1599)
    3. Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang (Frankfurt 1609)
    4. Dr. Johannes Faust, Magia naturalis et innaturalis (Passau 1612)
    5. Das Pfitzer'sche Faustbuch (1674)
    6. Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Meergeist (Amsterdam 1692)
    7. Das Wagnerbuch (1714)
    8. Faustbuch des Christlich Meynenden (1725)

    (and no.... of course I didn't just copy that from Wikipedia!

    9. Faust by Charles Gounod
    10. Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (named after a character from the musical “Cats”)
    11. Doktor Faustus by Ferruccio Busoni
    12. Bob Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust
    13. The second part of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8
    14. Franz Liszt's Faust Symphony
    15. Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony
    16. Dr Mabuse by eighties German electronica wizards, Propaganda
    17. Faust auf Faust, another 80s song by the Klaus Lage Band
    18. Damn Yankees- a musical comedy by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop
    19. As mentioned above, Bedazzled- the 1967 version of course, not the pointless Liz Hurley remake!.
    20. Thomas Mann's catchily titled 1947 Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde

  5. A strange old beast is opera! I've found that I often like the music but get annoyed by the narrative vocals. Also, I think that it really does help to know the storyline before you take your seat, cos there's no guarantee that you're going to be any the wiser when you leave it!

    I don't have a problem with the resetting of the tale into another time and/or place but I do have a guilty secret (possibly even more than one:-) I absolutely love the Mikado, there, I've said it! OK, it is comic opera and not a heavyweight like Faust, but it is opera none the less. Jonathan Millers production which moved the action from 19th century China to a 1930's English hotel is brilliant and reflects the fact that G&S wrote the Mikado as a humerous comment on English manners and morals of there own period. It works.

    I can't help the feeling that setting Faust in Nazi Germany is more than a bit cliched. It's been done before, with opera and even with Shakespeare, which doesn't mean that it should never be done again but the Third Reich isn't the only evil regime that could have been used!

  6. Don't be a fool...

  7. Terry Gilliam has given us such films as Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Time Bandits as well as countless gems of animation shorts


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