The Damnation of Faust is difficult because it involves a fantastic journey. Faust, an ageing and disillusioned scholar, is wavering between suicide and renewing his faith in God, when Méphistophélès appears. The demon offers to grant Faust’s most profound desires if only he will follow him.
Faust agrees, and the journey begins, jumping from one place to another, from a cellar tavern to a meadow, from a bedroom to the street, up into the mountains and finally down into hell.
The piece was first performed in Paris in 1846, but as a concert rather than a fully staged opera. Berlioz died in 1869, and it was only in 1893 that the work was presented in theatrical form. “I think Berlioz was very much ahead of his time,” says Dmitri Jurowski, chief conductor of the Vlaamse Opera and musical director for this production of Faust. “You can see indications, even in the score, that he needs some sort of special effects that he couldn’t describe because they were not possible at the time.”
On top of these technical demands, Faust also required something unusual from the performers. “You need people on stage who are really able to perform theatre, and in the opera world of the 19th century, that was not the case. Productions were completely different.”
Things have changed a lot since then, but The Damnation of Faust still represents a challenge. “One hundred years later opera has seen many developments,” says Jurowski. “But I think that it is still not enough to work with common theatrical techniques.”
This is what makes Terry Gilliam such an interesting choice as director. Although new to the world of opera (and live theatre for that matter), the 71-year-old has decades of experience bringing the fantastic to life, first through the animated sequences he created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, then in films such as Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. His most recent feature, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, even took its inspiration from the Faust legend.
“I’m not saying that the opera has to suddenly become a movie, but it would be wrong not to use the technical possibilities available today,” Jurowski explains. “And if you ask someone like Terry Gilliam, who has always had a certain theatricality in his movies, who has a modern vision but at the same time respects the music, and who has a team helping him with the technicalities of putting it on an opera stage, then I think it’s a combination that represents the future of opera.”
Gilliam’s production takes full advantage of all the modern techniques of physical and digital stagecraft, with moving images playing an important part in the design. But his most significant innovation is to introduce a parallel narrative that unfolds during the opera’s extended musical interludes, when the Faust story is essentially at a standstill. This explores German culture and history from 19th-century romanticism to the Third Reich, providing a startling context for dramatic events such as Faust’s descent into hell. His imagery is drawn from sources as diverse as the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Otto Dix, and the films of Leni Riefenstahl.
Jurowski has found collaborating with Gilliam a fascinating experience. “In a sense, it’s a new world for him, but in the rehearsal process, it is not so different working with a singer than it is working with an actor. What he does is to work very deeply on every character, and what I really like is that he doesn’t try to get big theatrical movements from the artists. He really wants it to be as intimate as possible, and I think this makes it very strong.”
Their collaboration has also extended to the musical aspects of the performance. “I’ve really enjoyed talking to him about musical theatre and how it is possible that sometimes the music gives a certain impulse to an actor – and when it’s better that an actor, through his movements, gives an impulse to the music.”
Although Gilliam’s production has been staged before (in London and Palermo), there will be differences when it comes to Flanders. The opera will be sung in the French of Berlioz’s original rather than English or Italian, and the cast has changed: American tenor Michael Spyres takes the title role, while the Italian Michele Pertusi and the Briton Simon Bailey take turns playing Méphistophélès.
Meanwhile, Gilliam has continued to work on the staging. “Now in the rehearsal process, I can see that things are developing from what I saw in London,” Jurowski says.
Then there is his own musical contribution, engaging with Berlioz’s complex music. “I wouldn’t say it is a typical French opera,” says Jurowski. “It’s one of those pieces where you can, as a conductor, make very interesting work combining different styles.” These range from the early Baroque to ideas that would not be out of place in contemporary music.
“From one point of view, it is a complete piece, but from the other it has so many elements that you can mix in different combinations,” he says. “You could even start the piece in the middle and end at the beginning. It’s like a perpetua mobilia.”
At the same time as making these innovations, Berlioz was working within a particular style of opera that demanded a narrative structure with dramatic climaxes in all the right places. “It’s a real challenge because you have to create a big line and at the same time you have to show all the miniatures within it. Sometimes you have five bars where you have five different miniatures,” Jurowski says. “I’m glad we are doing it for the opening of the season, while everyone is fresh!”