29 Jul 2009
Busoni: Doktor Faust
The legacy of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) includes some notable compositions, and among them is his unique setting of the Faust story.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.
It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.
Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.
American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.
Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.
'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan anymore.’ This was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up, made it doubly welcome.
On Feb 3, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s dramatic opera Madama Butterfly. Sandra Lopez was the naive fifteen-year-old who falls hopelessly in love with the American Naval Officer.
In the last of my three day adventure, I headed to Vienna for the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein (my first time!) for Mahler and Brahms.
In Amsterdam legend Janine Jansen and the seventh Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, Daniele Gatti, came together for their first engagement in a ravishing performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.
I extravagantly scheduled hearing the Berliner, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Wiener Philharmoniker, to hear these three top orchestra perform their series programmes opening the New Year.
There is no bigger or more prestigious name in avant-garde French theater than Romeo Castellucci (b. 1960), the Italian metteur en scène of this revival of Arthur Honegger’s mystère lyrique, Joan of Arc at the Stake (1938) at the Opéra Nouvel in Lyon.
On January 28, 2017, Los Angeles Opera premiered James Robinson’s nineteen twenties production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which places the story on the Orient Express. Since Abduction is a work with spoken dialogue like The Magic Flute, the cast sang their music in German and spoke their lines in English.
Fecund Jason, father of his wife Isifile’s twins and as well father of his seductress Medea’s twins, does indeed have a problem — he prefers to sleep with and wed Medea. In this resurrection of the most famous opera of the seventeenth century he evidently also sleeps with Hercules.
A Falstaff that raised-the-bar ever higher, this was a posthumous resurrection of Luca Ronconi’s masterful staging of Verdi’s last opera, the third from last of the 83 operas Ronconi staged during his lifetime (1933-2015). And his third staging of Falstaff following Salzburg in 1993 and Florence in 2006.
One of Aidan Lang’s first initiatives as artistic director of Seattle Opera was to encourage his board to formulate a “mission statement” for the fifty-year old company. The document produced was clear, simple, and anodyne. Seattle Opera would aim above all to create work appealing both to the emotions and reason of the audience.
Contrary to Stolzi’s multidimensional Parsifal, Holten’s simple setting of Lohengrin felt timeless with its focus on the drama between characters. Premiering in 2012, nothing too flashy and with a clever twist,
Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) consistently serves up superlatively sung Wagner productions. This Fall, its productions of Philipp Stölzl's Parsifal and Kasper Holten's Lohengrin offered intoxicating musical affairs. Annette Dasch, Klaus Florian Vogt, and Peter Seiffert reached for the stars. Even when it comes down to last minute replacements, the casting is topnotch.
Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
The legacy of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) includes some notable compositions, and among them is his unique setting of the Faust story.
Unlike many of his forebears in the nineteenth century, he did not adapt the version of the story by Goethe but, instead, returned to the older tradition of the story as found in the puppet plays. While Busoni otherwise respected Goethe, for the opera Doktor Faust, his decision to pursue the earlier form of the Faust legend disallowed any comparisons between his new opera and the existing ones which take their cue from Goethe. The differences lie in detail, rather than substance, but in Busoni’s hand the ambiguous tone of the dénouement avoids the religious overtones found with Gounod or the eschatological ones with Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust. Rather, the various elements he drew upon offer different perspectives, as with the blurring of the images of the crucifix and Helen of Troy at the ending and similar details earlier in the work. Both the dramatic structure of the opera and the musical idiom Busoni used to present it, separate this modern Faust from the musical settings of the story that emerged in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the conclusion, with its question about what just transpired brings a sense of open-endedness, akin to the approach Alfred Schnittke would take up later in the twentieth century in his own opera on this topic.
The present DVD of the recent Zurich production of Busoni’s Doktor Faust preserves the stage of Kalus Mchael Grüber, whose representation sets and almost choreographed movement to bring the score to his audiences in 2006. In fact, this film is indebted to the televised version which was directed by Felix Breisach, which makes effective use of close-ups and long shots to translate the production from stage to screen effectively. Thus, the image of the homunculus, which is critical in the opera’s opening, does not risk being obscured, as is possible when an opera DVD is simply an opera film from the stage. More important, the close-ups of Hampson as the impassioned and determined Faust are given proper attention, and the various representations of the spirit entities benefit from camera angles that bring them visually into the evocative musical score. Here, too, it is possible to appreciate Hampson’s command of the title role through his speaking, singing, and acting. His interaction with the symbols of the spirits gives the impression of someone experiencing the diabolic phenomena directly.
This emerges from Hampson’s own artistry and is also the result of the fine forces assembled for this production. Hampson becomes his Faust, a character rooted in the alchemy of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Only then is it possible to understand the context of the lengthy episode at the court of Parma, a duchy which is but one of the rival city-states that cultivated the kind of learning a Faust-like scholar could bring to it. Almost any traditional version of the Faust story requires the appearance of the Lucifer himself or through his devil Mephistopheles. In this opera, the role of Mephistopheles is given to a tenor, and Gregory Kunde gives it an apt reading. Without overacting, Kunde conveys the powerful dynamics of Faust’s bargain. Kunde is also a fine actor and, in this work, he must return his Mephistopheles to the stage, as the character emerges in various guises throughout the rest of Faust’s tragic life - as a monk, a herald, a cleric, a courier and, ultimately the nightwatchman who brings the work to its conclusion.
The other members of the cast include Günther Groissböck as Wagner, Faust’s “famulus” as the libretto has it, and he worked within the dramatic tension between Hampson and Kunde. In the various roles including the Duke of Parma, Reinaldo Macias differentiated each of the parts well. And Sandra Trattnigg deserves attention for her commanding vocal and dramatic presence in the first scene, the one in which Mefistopheles takes Faust to the court of Parma. Along with these soloists, the chorus of the Zurich Opera House was impressive for its clear sound and command of the music. Within the work, though, the dramatic structure revolves around the personas of Faust and Mefistopheles. Thomas Hampson and Gregory Kunde stand out for their powerful interpretations of their characters.
Moreover, the two singers work together well in the first part of the opera, but the second scene stands out for the intensity involved. At this point in the opera, Faust has returned from the court at Parma, and he is in the middle of an animated discussion among the scholars at Wittenberg. The debate is of interest for the various musical motifs in its structure, and this section stands as prelude to the question about Faust’s romantic interest. Here Hampson makes the declamatory lines by Busoni impassioned, and is then interrupted by Mephistopheles who, as messenger, tells of the death of the Duchess of Parma and the subsequent passing of her child, implicitly with Faust.
Kunde makes this scene work through clear delivery, fine diction, and understatement. In response to Faust’s frustration, the empty promise of Mephistopheles to bring Helen of Troy out of the past, contributes a further level of deception, which Hampson embodies well in this performance. Truly in this performance, the sense of despair as a mortal sin comes across profoundly, and this connected with the apt phrasing and pacing by Hampson. Even if this were a concert performance, that sense of emptiness would be aurally present. Yet in this staging, the descent of Faust adds a dimension to the tragedy which may not have been intended in the moralizing puppet-play tradition Busoni developed well.
That conclusion, though, is problematic, since Busoni did not complete his Doktor Faust, but stopped work near its ending. Busoni’s student Philipp Jarnach brought the score to completion for its premiere in 1925, a year after Busoni’s death. However, the British conductor Antony Beaumont found sketches for additional music, and Beaumont brought them into his 1985 completion of the Busoni’s opera. The present performance is based on Jarnach’s score, which is, perhaps, the more familiar of the two. By integrating movement into the staging, Grüber created a memorable production of a work which Hampson himself suggests in the interview (found on the second disc) as unsingable. The staging plays well with the depth of the stage, to give a sense of space into which the audience can enter. This space is the setting for some fine visual effects, particularly the use of pure colors to underscore the scenes. The special effects are minimal, leaving the enchantments implicit in the text to occur in the imaginations of the audience and the viewers of the film. Instead, the powerful images that remain in memory are those of Hampson as he puts a human face and moving voice to Faust. Likewise, the orchestra is notable for its clean, precise playing under the precise direction of Philippe Jordan. The orchestral interludes, like the ones Berg used in the operas he composed around the same time, merit attention on their own, and Jordan makes them work well within the larger structures of the scenes with which they are associated. The sound on the recording is also clear and allows the orchestra to emerge distinctly on this DVD.
This is a version of the Faust story which merits attention, and its recent release on DVD makes the opera accessible to a wider audience than the one for this production or even the television broadcast. Busoni’s Doktor Faust is a solid work which succeeds through the masterful performance found in this recording.
The DVD includes a booklet, which has the scenes keyed to a synopsis of action, rather than a complete libretto. Yet the text may be apprehended in German, French, English or Spanish, and those subtitles may be turned off readily. The interviews found on the second CD offer insights into the work from viewpoints of Thomas Hampson and Philippe Jordan, and the inclusion of the material is a wise choice by Arthaus in this fine DVD of Busoni’s Doktor Faust.
James L. Zychowicz