Monday, June 13, 2011

My First Opera

Going to see an opera was something I was keen to do while living in the capital, but it was a fairly non-commital target. Then I heard Terry Gilliam was going to direct one for the English National Opera, and suddenly my level of interest peaked.

I procrastinated a while; should I really be going to an opera just because a movie director is working on it? Bit of a vulgar things to do perhaps. But any reservations I had were quickly dispelled, however, when I saw the large poster outside Waterloo station, and thought to myself, I really would regret missing this.

Recruiting big name directors is part of the the English National Opera' ongoing quest over the last few years to encourage more people to visit the opera. Largely they've been successful although abbreviating their name to ENO is probably a little irritating to their old crowd.

As an introduction to opera, however, The Damnation of Faust was maybe not the best choice. It’s considered not to be a traditional opera, because it has long musical interludes which push it towards being more of a chamber piece (or so I’ve read). But I was nevertheless, curious to the point of excitement; Gilliam knows how to create a visual spectacular, and a tale of a man seduced by the devil was bound to give him plenty of creative leg-room.

And of course it’s set in Nazi Germany, a typical place to stage an early 19th century opera... This could really be interesting…

I could tell that I was not the only one lured to the opera by the promise of a full on Gilliam-fest. There were a number of student trendies amongst the well turned out spectacle wearing middle-class regulars and young debutante couples. It was the cheap seats for me (naturally) at the top of the rather pompously named London Coliseum. But, hell, it’s a stunning venue, a place with the full grandeur one would expect of an opera house. Alas, it also has the restrictive leg room of a traditional stage.

The play opens with a short monologue by Mephisto, the only addition to Berlioz’s original piece. The devil fiendishly invites us to watch him at his work. “For there is always a Faust”, and that Mein Kampf translates into “my struggle…”

My one main worry about seeing an opera was whether I would be able to understand it. That unique mixture of sung dialogue and traditional song, from what little exposure I had had to it, had been a little hard to digest. Would I be able to understand it all and grasp what was going on? I knew about the Faust legend, but there are so many iterations of it, this one could be very different.

But to my surprise, I found that the whole thing was subtitled! A little electronic screen above the stage reproduced all the lyrics (with occasional blips).

I must admit to not being sure what to make of this. It did mean that I always knew what was being said, but it also meant that I couldn’t sit and listen to the singers without looking at it. I couldn't really train my ear to the singing, because as a crutch, it was always there to lean on. I would really have liked to have tried without it. Although it was useful for the sections with multiple singers, which were hard to decipher. And without it, I might have struggled in vein with one section, before realising it was in latin!

So what to make of this particular opera? A 19th century work against 20th century Nazi backgrounds. In some ways the match seemed eerily prescient. Faust, whose soul-searching (his struggle) is preyed upon by the demonic Mephistopheles, and taken to a Munich beer hall where drunken revellers tell stories; an attempt to introduce the title character to the pleasures of indulgence.

A fat German soldier sings a song about a rat in a kitchen living the high life until being treated to poison. Then Mephistopheles sings a song about a flea above his station in a royal court, whose family then causes an infestation. They then proceed to attack a Jewish waiter violently.

The design work as you might imagine is striking. From visions of Germanic divinity to Bauhaus inspired street corners, soon defiled by kristallnacht revelries - from start to finish it is consistently a visual feast.

And the voices... I can’t judge them against other opera singers (I don’t know any) but these are powerful performances. The kind that could knock you over if you stood too close to them. It is the female lead who leaves the most lasting impression. Faust’s idealised vision of beauty, tricked by Mephistopheles into falling in love with her; her sweet tones are mesmerising, and tragic. She is the victim of the peace – Faust is naive and foolish, but only she is innocent, a pawn in the devil’s plan.

But it’s the end that leaves a really lasting impression. Faust is caught with his love, Marguerite, and is spirit away by Mephistopheles. Defiled by a man who is not her husband, the townsfolk condemn Marguerite (the visual sub-text is that he is pure German, and she Jewish). She is taken to a concentration camp, while Faust ends up where he began in the wilderness. Mephistopheles has done all that he intends to do for him, at least for free.

Faust hastily agrees to sign his soul to the devil to save her. He and Mephistopheles mount a pair of mighty steeds (a motorcycle and sidecar) and ride swiftly to her rescue. But Faust sees dark and disturbing images as they race forth (the passing scenery is projected onto a mesh in front of them). Suddenly there is a crash. Faust flies over the handle bars and lands, quite literally, straight into hell - through a trap door spewing red light and smoke.

In Hades he is wrapped in a straight jacket, then stretched and nailed to a swastika. As he is hoisted away, the devil and his minions dance and celebrate his damnation. But Mephistopheles is true to his word; in the concentration camp Marguerite lies atop of a pile of naked corpses and her soul is accepted into heaven and she is forgiven.

It’s a humdinger of a climax.

Damnation of Faust might not be most natural choice for a first trip to the opera, but as an introduction to the power of the medium, it was second to none. It was unashamedly huge, melodramatic, and above all, elegant. Grandiose, without ever seeming excessive or over the top. It did big in a way that I’ve never seen in a theatre; a real, elevating articulate spectacle.

Of course the success of this particular production owes a lot to Gilliam’s smart idea to parallel Faust’s naive corruption with the corruption of Germany. And huge kudos must go to his team for realising his vision so well, and to the performers for bringing it across so beautifully.

Of course it’s not a traditional opera. And I doubt many other works are based in Nazi Germany either. A different production might turn out to be less appealing – in all honesty it was a little difficult to grasp all the different literary and mythological references in the dialogue, and some of the artistic eccentricities of the medium.

But I was captivated. It was a powerful piece of work, even if I couldn’t absorb all of the details. Yes, I think I’ll be trying opera again at some point. Perhaps a more classical work, one without all the vast visual delights – something a little more stripped back. Then we’ll see quite how much I get this new (to me) medium. Because right now, I really can’t wait to go again.