Opera House, Zürich
April 28, 2018
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust confronts an enduring and knotty choice: earthly bliss for the price of your soul. Part 1 charts how Faust succumbs to Mephisto’s temptations and surrenders his soul to find momentary pleasures and ultimate despair. From this rich material Edward Clug has created a vibrant theatrical event for Ballett Zürich. It’s a dark and tragic tale spiced with very black comedy and told in a series of inspired theatrical moments that challenge even the resources of such a major opera house.
Watching Clug’s choreography, you are seldom aware of steps, rather each character finds in the movement the language, dialect or accent needed to express their story. He handles the large ensemble of angels – fallen or otherwise – and devils effectively; flooding the stage with waves of physical energy. Soldiers, students and even a sympathetic corps of Gretchens to accompany the girl in her most wretched hour, all play their part, but it is the trio of main protagonists that carry the show.
Jan Casier has a demanding and difficult role as Faust. An old man, intellectually sharp and physically weak but, his youth regained, he is able to fully claim the character and become the young Lothario. His brief relationship with Gretchen reveals sensitive depths but it’s a sorrowful end as he finally leaves her, empty and despairing, caring little for his fate as the gate to hell opens before him. William Moore, as Mephisto, the fallen angel dressed in black distinguished by a pair of red shoes, schemes his way through the plot with Machiavellian glee sowing chaos, misery and death in a hugely enjoyable performance. Sadly, sin is always more entertaining than morality and Moore has a winning way.
Slovenian, Milko Lazar, who has collaborated with Clug on many projects, provides a score of richly textured orchestral music, birdsong, popular song and a wealth of atmospheric sounds. Scenographer, Marko Japeli, and lighting designer, Martin Gebhardt, also Clug’s long-time creative partners, order the complexity of the staging that seems as choreographed as the movements. In the predominantly black box set, screens shift and video displays (by Tieni Burkhalter) take us from interiors to gardens, from heaven to hell.
The few props, a simple bed and the walk-in Perspex box create the nexus for the dramatic turning points. In the transparent frame, parked centre stage, old Faust hunched in the wheelchair is first confronted by Mephisto, who teasing and taunting, turns acrobatic tricks to steal the scholar’s soul, coercing him to sign the contract in a graphic display of blood.
In the final moments, the box becomes Gretchen’s prison. She has borne Faust’s child and drowned it and her brother has rejected her before dying at Faust’s hand. She sits awaiting her death, but in sorrow rather than anger and still with a remnant of love in her heart. Michelle Willems, as Gretchen gives a searing performance. In this highly theatrical production she is the exception: a flesh and blood woman, dressed simply and with an honest heart. She has caught Faust’s attention in her cleaning duties and when, as a reborn youth he poses on a table like a statue, he is diligently sprayed and cleaned as just another object. It’s an ingenious ploy and Clug’s invention continues in this vein. As Gretchen lies on her virginal bed, Faust is spirited to lie beneath and imitates her movements although his are shaded with lust and longing. She is thrown a string of pearls which she innocently accepts, but the symbol of entrapment is all too obvious as the pearls lasso her body and limbs. The seduction continues in an ingenious quartet in the park. Chaperoned by Marthe, a feisty performance from Viktorina Kapitonova, the worldly and the naïve are juxtaposed: Faust and Mephisto inhabiting one suit and Gretchen and Marthe, one dress. The four heads and eight hands, nod and gesticulate in witty repartee as love blossoms in the company of vile conspiracy.
The love duet that follows is a moment of honest emotion for Faust and the awakening of Gretchen’s love and devotion that will remain in her heart until death. However, Mephisto gleefully steps in to hijack it with a kitsch popcorn machine and Marlene Dietrich’s rendition of ‘Falling in Love Again’. He again manipulates her destiny when confronting her returning brother Valentin, Alexander Jones, looking like a hero from Game of Thrones, and brings about his bloody death. But it is still painfully hard not to love this handsome devil.
Elena Vostrotina, in slinky black made a totally believable witch. The way her extraordinary body folds, stretches and shapes it is not hard to believe she has magical powers. Together with Mephisto she transforms the aged Faust into a young man in a wicked and witty scene in company of knife wielding black clad figures. In the later Walpurgisnacht scene, she gets another cameo role as Helen of Troy, in a pair of outrageous gold platform shoes and, glued to Faust’s lips, she enjoys the longest kiss in ballet history. This final vision of hell, although it has the fantasy of Hieronymous Bosch-type figures is characterised more by desolation than wild celebration as the alienated Faust struggles with his conscience.
It’s a fast-paced production that covers a great deal of narrative. The small detail is a constant delight while strong dramaturgy (Clug, with Michael Küster) and effective structure hold the storyline. The company, augmented by the Junior Company, gave excellent support in a rewarding evening of dance drama.