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26 Oct 2009
Pascal Dusapin: Faustus, the Last Night
Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955) is an engaging composer, and his recent works includes a chamber opera entitled Faustus, the Last Night, a unique setting of the legend and a fine contribution to modern opera.
This version of Faust
differs from others, since it eschews the traditional narrative which starts
with Faust signing a pact with the devil, moves to the sometimes picaresque
adventures of the ensorcelled Faust, and ends with the devil claiming his soul.
Instead of retelling the story, Dusapin assembled the English-language libretto
from various sources to create a text focused on the trials and temptations of
Faust during the minutes before his fateful contract with the devil is due. In
a sense Dusapin takes his cue from Marlowe’s climactic soliloquy from
the end of his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus:
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then though must be damned perpetually,
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,That time may cease ad midnight
O lente, lente currite noctis equi!
The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike;
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned. . . .
(Act 5, lines 57-61; 66-68)
In creating this work, Faust is not necessarily a character worth saving,
with the inanity of his diabolic pact made painfully clear, and Mephistopheles
characterized with the dimensionality which makes him more than a minion of
Satan, but approaching the persona of Lucifer in challenging the nature of
mortal existence. The conversational tone of Faustus, the Last Night may be
traced to the kind of opera Strauss created in Capriccio, in the medium
foregoes the depiction of physical action to result instead in a shift of
thought and concept. (The concept is also used in Henri Pousseu’s
Votre Faust (1969), which revolves around a discussion about the prospect of
an opera on the subject of Faust.) The conversational aspect of
Dusapin’s Faustusalso echoes some elements of early opera, which
resulted in various settings of familiar myth. Akin to those early
seventeenth-century works, music in Faustus serves as a means to an end, a way
for Dusapin to convey the verbal ideas effectively. At times, too, the score
functions as a kind of soundtrack in order to allow the work to shift between
scenes smoothly and offer cues to mood and tone.
The performers as a whole conveyed the work effectively. The
English-language text emerges clearly, and while listeners should not have a
problem with the enunciation, subtitles are possible in the original language,
as well as French and German. Since the libretto is not published with the DVD,
those interested in exploring the text further may use the subtitles as a point
of departure (future DVDs like this would benefit from the inclusion of the
full text in the digital medium, as a matter of convenience for the user). As
Mephistopheles, Urban Malmberg personifies the role. His command of the part is
remarkable and serves as a foil for the doomed Faustus, as depicted by Georg
Nigl. At times Malmberg and Nigl overlap their lines, as found in the score,
and this underscores the blurring of their characters in this work. In
Dusapin’s Faustus, Mephistopheles can be as absorbed in thought as
Faust. In lieu of a stage devil who simply represents the diabolical forces,
Mephistopheles offers some comments which can be as intriguing as the ones
Dusapin puts into Faust’s mouth.
This resembles the interchangeability which occurs in modern productions of
Don Giovanni in the singers who portray the title character and his servant
Leporello sometimes switch their roles between performances. In this sense,
Malberg and Nigl work well together in this work to create a good dynamic, and
the other principals respond well to it. The angel is one of the more engaging
of Dusapin’s characters, and Caroline Stein gave the role the level
of definition to counterbalance Mephistopheles. The other two characters,
Robert Wörle as Sly (derived from the character in the prologue to
Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) and Jaco Huijpen as Togod offer
various perspectives on the dilemma in which Faust finds himself. Throughout
the performance the conductor Jonathan Stockhammer allows the orchestra to
support the singers deftly. His tempos reflect his sensitivity to the text,
which emerges clearly in an engaging reading of the score for this new version
of the Faust legend.
James L. Zychowicz