Fans of large-scale musical spectacle of an operatic nature were spoilt for choice in London this week.
Roger Waters’ dusted down The Wall at the O2 Arena, this time with added Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason for one night only, delighting middle-aged fans of overblown, adolescent angst.
The Second World War is the starting point for the Pink Floyd story of alienation, a bomber plane crashing in spectacular style signifying the death of main character Pink’s father.
The War also marks the sombre conclusion of the much anticipated debut of Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python illustrator, as an opera director – but this time presenting events from the German experience.
Like The Wall, Gilliam’s presentation of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the English National Opera, incorporates stunning screen back-projections, which advance the possibilities of musical theatre, to illustrate the story.
But there’s a human, beating heart at the centre of Gilliam’s Faust, perhaps surprising given his comedic background, which the Wall, with its reliance on bombastic spectacle, lacks.
In The Wall, Pink’s psychological isolation, nurtured in childhood, turns him into a closed-off, dictatorial rock star. Faust is an equally vulnerable character, poised to end his life until taken on the ride of his life by Mephistopheles.
Gilliam brings his trademark cinematic flourishes to Faust, setting the action in angular sets inspired by German Expressionist art and cinema of the 30s. Christopher Purves’ devil is a charismatic ringmaster, leading Faust (Peter Hoare) to his willing doom.
Although first performed in 1846, Gilliam has recast the work as a travelogue through the German psyche, from the militarism of the early 20th century, through to the humiliation of the First World War defeat and the rise of Nazism.
Opera newcomers will welcome a score that’s pleasingly harmonic. Who’s to say that Faust doesn’t actually have better tunes than Waters’ one-and-a bit-hit Wall? The highpoint is probably Christine Rice as Marguerite’s aria of longing for Faust, who is to be snatched away from her after one clinch.
In Gilliam’s story, Margeurite is a Jew, whose arrest and ultimate fate in Auschwitz is gleefully orchestrated by Mephistopheles, as part of his plan to lure Faust into the underworld on a fool’s errand to save his love.
After a thrilling two-hour ride – the opera moves at a brisk pace – and a series of stunning set-pieces, Gilliam pulls off a surprisingly moving ending as Marguerite’s soul finds redemption at the death camp.
Audience members at Beehive’s night at the opera included Jim Broadbent, Jeremy Hunt and the Lords Winston and Parkinson (Cecil).
Faust is a hot ticket and most of the well-heeled attendees looked like they would consider £80 for a stalls seat a bargain. It’s a shame that there’s only four more performances to go before Faust ends on June 7 and travels to Europe.
Is there a way for the ENO to bring the production back and allow more of the public to see a show which would certainly change many people’s perception of opera?
Or, given the demand, and the scale of the production, can Faust perhaps transfer to the O2 Arena and give Waters’ fans a spectacle that substitutes humanity for portentousness.