Among the trends in theatre lately is another frightening one.  Some directors seem to feel that it is acceptable to impose any theme or idea they want on an existing script regardless of that concept’s validity.  For example, recently I saw a production of MACBETH where the director decided that all of the actors, male and female, would take turns playing both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  Each passed the crown to the next performer in line to express the theme that “there is evil in everyone.”  MACBETH does not contain the theme “there is evil in everyone.”   The major theme of “blind ambition corrupts” has been good enough to make the play successful for almost four hundred years, but that’s not good enough for that production’s director.  The result was annoying for those who knew the play and totally incomprehensible to those who did not.  This can also be seen as a lack of trust in the material or in the audience’s ability to understand it.

Shakespeare has long suffered from the frenzy to make his work “more accessible” and “more relevant.”  Once again, the works have survived and have been constantly performed, and the fact that these plays have survived in spite of all of the meddling by many misguided directors is a testament to the quality of the work.

Over the years, I have seen operas fall prey to the same treatment.  At times, these unusual treatments work.  Quite often, they don’t.

I have almost always enjoyed going to English National Opera productions.  They often do operas that I would not otherwise get to see, and they often approach the material in interesting ways.  Although not all of these approaches are successful, the singing and playing are generally first rate, so any visit to ENO is worthwhile in one way or another.

Recently, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame staged Hector Berlioz’s THE DAMNATION OF FAUST, and he imposed his own theme on the piece, a theme that is not in the original, and a theme that overshadowed the themes and story already decided upon by Goethe or Berlioz.  To be fair, this version of FAUST is not generally considered an opera.  Berlioz himself considered it a légende dramatique while many others consider it an oratorio.  However, it still has its basis in the Faust legend which had absolutely nothing to do with Nazi Germany or the Holocaust.

I want to make clear that Gilliam is responsible for three of my favorite films: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, TIME BANDITS, and BRAZIL.  I generally like his approach and off-center attitude towards things, but here, he has allowed his “vision” to overpower what the work’s creators provided, and he does a disservice to the material as a result.  It really looked as though he did not trust that Berlioz’s glorious music would continue to carry the original, simplified plot along as it has since the work was written in 1846.

Before going too deeply into the problems, credit must be given to the superb cast and musicians.

I was thrilled to see and hear Christine Rice again after enjoying her as Carmen last year.  Her Marguerite is simply glorious from her soaring highs to earthly chest-voice.  Her most famous aria, “D’amour l’ardente flame” (“Love is an ardent flame”), is absolutely stunning even though it was bizarrely staged.  She is obviously a talent with few limits as I have now seen her handle beautifully two very diverse women’s roles, each requiring entirely different approaches.  I can hardly wait for my next opportunity to see and hear her.

Her Faust, Peter Hoare, has a huge hurdle to overcome in this production, but Hoare, who has had an interesting and varied career, is still able to shine.   Because of Gilliam’s concept, Faust almost become secondary or even tertiary to Marguerite and Mephistopheles.  Hoare’s clarion voice effortlessly presents Berlioz’s emotionally drenched music, and as long as you don’t look too closely at him (as he resembles a cross between Eraserhead and a member of the Irish Band Jedward with a ridiculous shock of red hair that makes him look the fool), he’s quite effective as the impetuous lover.

I was also impressed by Christopher Purves who sings Mephistopheles as I remember Purves as one of the members of Harvey and the Wallbangers in the 1980’s, and he is an incredibly impressive force on the opera stage.  It may sound elitist, but one doesn’t expect a rock’n’roll singer to make the transition to opera so beautifully.  He’s had quite a varied operatic career, and he not only sings Mephistopheles beautifully, but his acting is also first-rate with just the right touches of malice and irony.

Edward Gardiner conducts the glorious ENO orchestra with a deft hand here and supports the singers beautifully.  There is never any conflict between the two groups which is imperative.  When adding the committed and adroit ENO chorus, the musical portion of the evening is delightful and even more so if one just listens and does not look at the production.

Why this treatment has gotten such rave reviews is beyond me.

Gilliam has decided to impose the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust on this fabled love story which is simply unnecessary and removes the focus from the fall of Faust and the seduction of Marguerite while often ignoring the text, and I have always found this kind of distortion unconscionable.

Here, Marguerite is a Jewess and is not sentenced to death because she accidentally kills her mother by overdosing her on a sleeping drug so that Faust can visit her.  In fact, as far as I remember, it isn’t even mentioned here.  Instead, Marguerite is taken to a death camp after what appears to be Kristallnacht.  There is alsosubstantial staging dedicated to the anti-Semitic dealings of the Nazis which further detracts focus from Faust’s quest and Mephistopheles’ conquest.

Now, the original libretto by Hector Berlioz, Almire Gandonanière and Gérard de Nerval does not include very much of a story, so it might be a temptation to directors to “flesh it out.”  However, some common sense with the libretto should prevail.

I was not taking notes during the opera, but a few awkward moments were so jarring that they remain fresh in my memory.  During the “love scene” between Faust and Marguerite, they both sing about the rapture of being in each other’s arms.  This is a lovely moment except for the fact that Faust is inexplicably washing Marguerite’s feet at that moment.  Why would he wash her feet?  He shows no other signs of a foot fetish.  They both sing repeatedly about this, so I guess the audience is supposed to ignore that aspect.

Another moment that is ruined is when Marguerite waits in vain for Faust to return to her.  She clearly sings about “standing at her window,” but because of the imposed themes, she is sitting on a suitcase in a darkened boxcar on the way to a death camp when she sings this.  She shows no other signs of insanity, so why she should be singing about waiting for Faust to come at this point is unclear.  Hugo Macdonald translated this version of the libretto, so why Gilliam did not work with him to alter the text to fit the Gilliam vision and remove such irregularities is a wonderment.

The final scene is also problematic.  As Faust is dragged to hell and Marguerite makes her ascension to heaven, Marguerite sings what is arguably the most beautiful aria of the evening.  Here, Marguerite is lying atop a pile of dead bodies from the Nazi death camp.  This not only goes against the libretto, but it also lessens the horrific situation it is representing.  Judging from the comments I overheard at the end of the opera, it also confused quite a few of the audience members who simply did not realize what was happening.  This, coupled with Faust in a straightjacket being strapped and suspended upside down to a swastika, seems to get further away from the sources and overwhelmed the intentions of both Goethe and Berlioz.

I’m afraid that this approach is a bit to “Emperor’s New Clothes” to me.  No, it is not acceptable to do anything one wants to a script.  As far as I’m concerned, directors and designers have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the material while making a production interesting.  The saving grace here (no pun intended) is that the glorious singing and playing are still there when your eyes are closed.

Well – I have a post script – unfortunately.

A disrespect for material far greater than this production of THE DAMNATION OF FAUST has also been perpetrated by ENO.  Christopher Alden has staged a repugnant MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM that voids every aspect of Shakespeare’s most magical play.  Set in a dingy gray boys’ school devoid of color, soul, and humor, this DREAM keeps much of Shakespeare’s text as delivered by Benjamin Britten’s music and simply ignores it.  This has been called intelligent by some critics, but it must be one of the most dismal productions I have ever seen.

Alden’s Puck is a damaged school boy who was seemingly abused by the callous Oberon as headmaster.  His Titania is an oversexed music teacher who ends up in a basement “bower” with Bottom who is made to look like an ass but he wears no ass’ head.  The purple flower that causes people to fall in love seems to be a joint, but it’s hard to tell since everyone, children’s chorus and all, seem to be lighting up.

This production is a travesty.  Why bother to use an existing libretto if you’re just going to ignore it?  I pity the singers as once again, the singing is lovely, but they’re forced to perform such ludicrous actions.  Some seem decidedly embarassed.  The promo from ENO promises a “richly romantic and fantastical score,” but the fine orchestra as conducted by Leo Hussain delivers a sound as tedious, grey, and soulless as Alden’s production.

Didn’t anyone in administration have the sense to say, “No”?  The entire production and design staff should be ashamed.

…Sorry – One more.

SIMON BOCCANEGRA at the ENO is equally as gray as the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.  I guess when one modernizes an opera, it’s “hip” if it’s black, white, and gray, and one cannot possibly pick the leads out in any crowd scene.  Someone mentioned that the set looked like a “job center in Lewisham.”  This is not a complement, and I agree with it totally.  The famed Council Chamber Scene is reduced to a disjointed mob scene without any of the grandeur it demands.  I don’t even want to go into why Boccanegra ends up with a folded newspaper “hat” on his head.  What a farce this production is!

Ah well…  Now I am getting off the soapbox.  I need a rest.