Michael Tanner

Berlioz traduced

After its brief detour into magnificence with The Return of Ulysses at the Young Vic, ENO has returned to its hell-bent form with, appropriately enough, a dramatisation of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.

After its brief detour into magnificence with The Return of Ulysses at the Young Vic, ENO has returned to its hell-bent form with, appropriately enough, a dramatisation of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.

After its brief detour into magnificence with The Return of Ulysses at the Young Vic, ENO has returned to its hell-bent form with, appropriately enough, a dramatisation of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Not that the composer would recognise his work, first performed in 1846, from the production, described in the programme thus: ‘The extraordinary creative journey of Terry Gilliam reaches the operatic stage for the first time’, while the Synopsis begins, ‘Our production follows the trajectory of German art and history from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century’.

I thought that was Wagner’s province — and just in case his spirit should feel offended, the Synopsis makes it clear that one scene is ‘a Wagnerian entertainment staged for the guests’, who are the Nazi high command. Later on, we learn, ‘Groups of Jews sit among piles of luggage [back to the old days of suitcase-ridden opera], awaiting transportation. Marguerite is among them. Everyone is loaded on to a goods train.’ And as the scene changes ‘Arbeit macht frei’ is projected on to the curtain.

It doesn’t seem to me that it’s a good way to trace the trajectory of German art and history to perform a ‘dramatic cantata’ that has nothing to do with them; and the converse is still more evidently true. Scenes such as the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games are now so clichéd that they dispel rather than concentrate attention, and to have absurd-looking people strutting around wearing Nazi armbands is merely camp. Damnation is a delicate thing. All too easily it can strike one as just one characteristic Berliozian item after another — characteristic either in inspiration or in banality.

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