Take an opera that isn't really an opera, a director with no experience in the opera house, a huge cast (and even bigger budget) and you have a Faust whose damnation seems assured. Add a dressing-up box of operatic clichés (you can never go wrong with a swastika) and the critics start warming their hands with the hellfire. But nobody told Terry Gilliam that this was supposed to be a failure. The result is anarchic, at times naive, but a triumph of the genre.
Even the staunchest of English National Opera's champions have faltered of late. Hiring directors from film and theatre to bring new life to opera was a promising scheme but, after the failures of Rufus Norris's Don Giovanni and Mike Figgis's Lucrezia Borgia, many started to wonder when the theory would translate to success. Gilliam has silenced us all.
Paying only lip-service to Goethe's original, Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique is more meditation than dramatisation: it is an awkward hybrid of opera and oratorio, in which characters anticipate, yearn and recall but rarely get around to any action. With one of the composer's finest orchestral scores, the danger is always that Faust and Marguerite will get lost among the instrumental set pieces, their story dissolved into a Romantic tone poem.
Yet it is precisely this abstraction that makes The Damnation of Faust such a good fit for Gilliam, giving his exuberant talent the space it needs. With the help of a seasoned production team, Gilliam weaves his new narrative and film projections into Berlioz's tapestry.
Faust's travels are framed in Germany's 20th-century history. It's a transposition that we've seen forced on to works ranging from Rigoletto to Parsifal but, with the aid of Hildegard Bechtler's designs and Finn Ross's video material, it has a rare intelligence and resonance here. Berlioz's "Hungarian March" soundtracks a Pythonesque scene of military leaders carving up the territorial cake of Europe; the "Song of the Flea" is reinvented as a piece of anti-Semitic propaganda; Marguerite's seduction takes place among the lynch mobs of Kristallnacht, the plangent viola solo of her "Ballad of the King of Thule" taking on a Jewish inflection.
Christine Rice, as Marguerite, provided the night's sharpest coup de théâtre, turning away from her menorah to don a flaxen wig and sing a hopeless love song to the Hitler Youth poster boy on the wall of the building opposite. Matching Rice's loose-limbed, long-lined delivery for beauty was Christoper Purves as Mephistopheles - a worldly and polished devil, shifting from nightclub compère to blackshirt to grotesque surgeon as he went along. Only Peter Hoare as Faust - all physical eccentricities and psychological scars - seemed uncertain, exposed by the role's cruelly high tessitura.
Gilliam's The Damnation of Faust is operatic innocence at its best, unawed by precedent and unafraid of innovation. The score that the conductor Thomas Beecham once described as “a bunch of the loveliest tunes in existence" here finds its equal in the striking vision of Gilliam and his team. l
Until 7 June