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.
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How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.
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