Terry Gilliam's Faust

On Friday we went to London, to go to the opera, to see Terry Gilliam's version of Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust, performed by the ENO.

I've never been one of those nerdish Python heads but I'm definitely a Gilliam fan (I once gave a worse-for-wear Terry Jones a lift to a hotel, though that's another story). I've seen all Gilliam's films (with the exception of the execrable The Brothers Grimm, which I abandoned halfway), many several times. I know Jabberwocky back to front. Not uncontroversially I still think Baron Muchausen is his best, though perhaps that's because it arrived at a time when its 'pro-imagination' message particularly spoke to me. Don't get me wrong. I'm not uncritical. All his films are flawed - it's what makes them so watchable.

I was a little disappointed to see that so few people had dressed up. I'm not sure what I was expecting. Cigar smoking gentlemen in tailcoats and cravats, perhaps. Courtesans in whalebone corsets, fanning themselves and looking on disdainfully. Frottage in the boxes. Maybe I've seen too many Gilliam films.

If the audience were disappointing, the production was not. It had everything you'd want from Gilliam: stunning costumes, ingenious sets, tricks of lighting and perspective, mockery of Nazis, breathtaking projections and imagery (Faust's damnation and Margarite's ascension), and emotional punches too.

But the opera? Oh my. I could just about cope with Berlioz' plot, which made little sense (remember, I'm a Gilliam fan), and the turgid, endless music. But - and maybe this is because I am steeped in the naturalism and narrative conventions of film - opera is just ridiculous. Haven't they heard of character development? Backstory? Storytelling? I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them, but opera stretches credulity too far.

Example. Margarite discovers that Faust, her love from afar, is hiding behind the curtain in her bedroom. Is she just a teensy bit freaked? Nope. She starts singing that if he leaves her she will die.

'Someone's coming I must go!'

'If you go I will die'

'I have to go, don't die'

'They are coming. You must go. I will die.'


And that, I suppose, is opera's problem. In it's day it was powerful, revolutionary, relevant, sexy, the best immersion in sound and light and drama that money could buy. But it's been totally eclipsed by cinema (which, if some commentators are to be believed, is just about to be eclipsed by computer games). Sure, it still looks stunning, and when the soprano is at full tilt and the chorus belting it out, yeah, it's pretty electrifying. But I never once cared about Faust and his woes, which, given the archetypal nature of the story takes some doing.

So, classic Gilliam. Impeccably flawed.


  1. I found this very interesting, like you love Gilliam (including his flaws) and like you think Baron Munchausen one of his best. I was intrigued by the idea of the opera.
    Done well opera can be great, just like theatre it can lift you into a new world. But like all stories if the libretto is badly written it's a let down.
    It's a shame it disappointed.

    I have been meaning to comment for a while, but only just had courage to add my two penn'orth.

  2. I'm a Python fan (only mild, though would love to hear the Terry Jones story sometime!), and definitely a Gilliam fan. I think Brazil is my favourite, though the Baron comes very high in the list. I just adore his visual mastery and every time I see his work I just wish I could spend 5 minutes inside his brain! Anymore could be dangerous for one's sanity I suspect.

    I've only been to one opera...it was Don Juan and, on top of the silly lyrics, I had to cope with the extremely unpalatable notion of a 'lovable rogue' who likes to 'seduce' women by climbing in through their windows at night. But I think, as Charlotte says, it could be wonderful if done well. Maybe it just needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, as theatre has been. As a theatre lover, I see it as having an entirely different purpose to film now, theatre can do things that film cannot, and shouldn't try to compete with it in terms of 'realism' as film does that better.

    I was, like you, disappointed at the lack of frippery and lace amongst audience members. I though it was just that Aussies don't dress up for ANYTHING (even weddings don't get the treatment these days), but perhaps it's just modern life.

  3. Absolutely.... the lack of character development and all the wackiness is just too much for me. I saw one opera at the MET in NY... "Blackbeard" of all things. Didn't much care for most of the fluff, the weird singing conversations, but did get to hear Jessie Norman singing, so that was amazing. I would have preferred hearing her sing spirituals than Blackbeard however!

  4. I've been to a few operas and have much preferred the ones in Italian when I have no clue what the 'plot' is about. As you say, it's generally paper-thin and requires disbelief suspenders of iron to withstand the farce.
    So for stories, books beat everything, but opera's brilliant at overblown, really impressive singing and I love it for that.
    And hoorah for dressing up.

  5. Interesting post. I feel I should point out that The Damnation of Faust isn't really an opera: It was written for concert performances, not a dramatic stage presentation. I agree that bad opera is BAD but don't write off a whole art form... as with cinema, rock music, Tv whatever, there are many MANY different approaches, and there are plenty of operas with very profound and deeply felt character development, and thoroughly thought through plots.



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