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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
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