It was something of a coincidence that two of Goethe's seminal works – filtered through a very different pair of French composers – featured on London's two major opera stages on consecutive evenings. In the latest revival of Benoît Jacquot's Royal Opera production of Werther, focus was clearly on Rolando Villazón, making a return to Covent Garden after several years' enforced absence.
For English National Opera's The Damnation of Faust, it was the prospect of Terry Gilliam's operatic debut that had set tongues wagging. There was an optimistic sense, too, after some positive pre-opening night buzz, that John Berry's gamble with directors new to opera might be about to pay off. In the event, however, neither performance was the success the audience was willing it to be.
Unlike Berlioz's 'dramatic legend', Massenet's Werther is opera through and through. A trio of librettists did the work of turning Goethe's epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, into a practicable libretto, while Massenet produced a consummate score: easy melody mixes with Wagnerian harmonic richness. There is, of course, a need to telescope much of the action and emotional development of the characters. In the first two acts the burden is on Werther himself – 'a young man of independent means', as he is quaintly designated in the cast list – to gain our sympathy as a hopeless romantic, express a thunder-bolt love for Charlotte, and grieve convincingly on finding out she's unattainable. And to do it all quickly.
There was no doubting Villazón's commitment, but he fell some way short on these counts. His hammy acting – too often an unholy alliance of grimace and semaphore – did nothing to hide the fact his singing was an effortful act of negotiation: much of his delivery was rather close to crooning, top notes were constricted, mezza voce effects were apparently employed to save vocal resources, and the basic sound was simply too small. There was none of the lyrical ease that this role demands, and the brain's effort in controlling the voice seemed to have cut off its link to the heart. Admittedly he wasn't helped by a production, first seen at Covent Garden in 2004, that seems to have very little interest in the first two acts, unnecessarily halting the character's development with an interval between them and having a fountain tinkling gently away all through Act One. Villazón's costume, meanwhile, had him in round sunglasses and a blue velvet suit at his first appearance, faintly suggesting he'd wandered in from a glam rock video.
Matters improved considerably for the final two acts, however, as Charlotte's drama came to the fore, and Sophie Koch's wonderfully free and fluid mezzo was given a chance to blossom. The production at this point grows in elegance and interest, while the conducting of Antonio Pappano, a little reluctant to open the flood gates early on, hit its lyrical stride. There was a sense, still, that Charlotte's extended scene was little more than an exquisite but somewhat unrelated study in melancholy – she stands still with her back to us for during the orchestral introduction, framed against Charles Edwards' painterly, static design. Villazón seemed to have loosened up a little on his return, too, and acted more sympathetically during his protracted death scene. The rest of the cast was fine: Eri Nakamura was a perky Sophie, and Audun Iversen all dull respectability as Albert (although dressed, bizarrely, in Mephistophelean red). At the curtain call there were cheers for Villazón and much hugging between him and Pappano; but, while disaster was averted, this performance suggested that the voice's rehabilitation is far from complete.
The decision for Terry Gilliam to make his operatic debut in a work that, of course, is not strictly speaking an opera, was in some ways a shrewd one. The Damnation of Faust is a loose agglomeration of scenes that demands some filling in of gaps if it's to function on stage. Yet, while there are some interesting ideas in Gilliam's new production, and, with an experienced creative team at his side, there's none of the basic theatrical ineptitude that has marred some of ENO's other recent productions, it doesn't take long for his own vision to completely drown out Berlioz and, for the matter, Goethe.
'Our production', the synopsis rather chummily tells us, 'follows the trajectory of German art and history from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century'. The German 'mid-twentieth century' is, of course, a euphemism for the Third Reich. And the trajectory in question is far from steady: we rush through from German Romanticism (evoked in Hildgard Bechtler's often splendid sets by an evocation of Casper David Friedrich) through German imperial expansion (Europe, in the form of a cake, is sliced up by Mephistopheles to the strains of the Rakoczy March), through to the First World War. Auerbach's Keller seems to play host to the Munich Putsch (with Nicholas Folwell's Brander a rather unconvincing Hitler-a-like). The fleas of Mephistopheles' song are equated with the Jews while a poster of Lenin is replaced with a Swastika.
Long before the end of the first half, then, the trajectory slows drastically as we arrive in Hitler's Germany. And that's where we stay, in an uncomfortable, sub-Roberto Benigni no-man's-land that vacillates between satire and crass appeals to sympathy. Marguerite, it becomes clear, is Jewish, and is carted off to a concentration camp. There she sings 'D'amour l'ardente flamme', while a guard, his heart melted by her plight, briefly befriends a child. Faust himself – as representative of German culture, one has to assume – is condemned by his complicity with the Nazis, and is finally crucified on a giant Swastika in a bizarre set-piece that is crowned with a furiously gesticulating Hitler. Finally, the most disturbing and thought-provoking part of the production seems to have been inadvertant: the supposedly Jewish Marguerite only achieves eventual salvation to the strains to Berlioz's very Christian final chorus.
There's a lot of excellent, highly imaginative stagecraft on display, and some particularly effective use of projections, but it's rarely clear what on earth it's all got to do with Berlioz's work. There was, admittedly, none of the usual tension between production and work that can come with so bold an updating, but I think this was simply down to the fact the Gilliam's production just swept all before it. Our protagonists, their words and their music all seemed incidental. Edward Gardner led the ENO orchestra with some verve, meanwhile, but could hardly compete.
Peter Hoare was miscast as Faust, and had failed to work out how to deal with some of the role's more tortuous tessitura. Christine Rice, however, was an excellent Marguerite, even if her two big numbers suffered most at the hands of Hugh MacDonald's translation. Christopher Purves stole the show as a suave Mephistopheles, commanding the stage and filling the theatre with ease. The ENO chorus excelled themselves.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos: Rolando Villazon © Pamela Springsteen/Virgin Classics; The Damnation of Faust (Tristram Kenton/ENO)