Saturday, 19 November 2016

Busoni - Doktor Faust (Zurich, 2006)

Ferruccio Busoni - Doktor Faust

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006

Philippe Jordan, Klaus Michael Gruber, Thomas Hampson, Günther Groissböck, Gregory Kunde, Reinaldo Macias, Sandra Trattnigg, Martin Zysset, Andreas Winkler, Thilo Dahlmann, Matthew Leigh

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

The fact that it isn't performed very often might lead one to believe that Busoni's Doktor Faust is not quite as dramatically suited to the stage as other adaptations of Goethe's famous work. In truth, few of those other versions ever amount to either a complete or a coherent account of the Faust legend, more often picking and choosing scenes to musically illustrate it, reducing it down to a series of episodic numbers. That's true for Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, as much as it is for Bioto's Mefistofele and even Gounod's Faust, which may nonetheless be the most successful account of the work for the opera stage.  

Grappling with the dramatic construction of the work is probably the greatest challenge and Busoni's opera appears to be much more complete and better structured as an opera than any of the other above named examples. And this is despite the fact the Prologue where Faust enters into his deal with Mephistopheles takes up a full third of the work. At this stage Faust is already considered a heretic and a libertine in his quest to understand men's behaviour and extend the boundaries of human knowledge. Three mystical figures appear however, three students from Cracow who drift unseen past his assistant Wagner, offering him a book and a key that will open the door to the knowledge he seeks, allowing him to call on the assistance of Lucifer and his servants.

This opening scene is an important one to establish the context for what follows and Busoni gives it due attention for its potential for stage spectacle, for the richness of the music that can be applied to it, and for the part it plays in determining how the audience regard Faust's considering a pact with the devil. He doesn't enter into the arrangement lightly (it's nothing something to dabble in, after all), dismissing all the demons who he believes will not be able to help him fulfil his ambitions. He may only be left with Mephistopheles in the end, but he recognises that this servant of Hell who can read the thoughts of men and knows the secret desires in their hearts, offers the best opportunity for the learning the forbidden knowledge he seeks.

Rather than dominating and dictating the whole tone of the work and potentially distorting the message of the legend of Faust, the doctor's misdeeds and misuse of his powers take up only the middle section of the work, but it is so well used. Like the first section, Busoni's orchestration is rich and dynamic, with recitative and declamation mixed with Romantic sensibilities, symphonic interludes and occasional forays to the edges of tonality. Even within these more episodic scenes, Busoni finds a full range of expression that covers the important aspects of Faust's actions.

His seduction of the maiden Gretchen is not as important - debatably - as him being held to account for it by her brother the soldier. His response, leaving the act of disposing of this man to Mephistopheles, in a church and blasphemously disguised as a monk, all add to the accounts in Satan's books, for which Faust will have to settle up later. Likewise, Faust's display of power for the Duke and Duchess of Parma is not just an opportunity to display arcane powers, but a way to probe relevant questions on the nature of beauty, and how to use them to bend the Duchess to his bidding. The consequences of this are even debated by students of Catholic and Protestant doctrine in a scene that further explores the pull of emotions, love and human mortality.

The final third of the work is devoted to Faust's downfall, the knight, the Duchess and a dead baby she has delivered come back to haunt him, but they also present him with a chance at some kind of redemption. Dividing the work almost equally up into Thought-Action-Reflection, the overall impression of Busoni's Faust then is of a work that focuses on the human drives and the price to be paid for them rather than the Romantic centre of Marguerite in Gounod's Faust or the huge battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell that is scaled up in Boito's Mefistofele.

So why then is Busoni's Doktor Faust not better known and given greater credit? Well, like many worthy works from the same period, history hasn't been kind to Busoni's great work. The opera remained incomplete when the composer died in 1924, the work finished by a pupil, Philipp Jarnach, for a first performance in 1925, but it was only in 1982 that the opera was completed from original sketches that the composer left for the remainder of the work. Like many 'lost' or neglected works from the 1920s however, musical fashions changed greatly around this time, and those that fell in-between the two world wars particularly have suffered the most, seeming to become irrelevant and never finding an audience as music went in another direction entirely. Even though Busoni paved the way for this kind of new music and even though Doktor Faust still sounds quite modern, it has never had the opportunity to find the place it deserves in the opera repertoire.

The Zurich production from 2006 goes a long way towards highlighting the musical qualities of the work if it doesn't quite manage to make Doktor Faust come fully to life on the stage. The staging is stylised, semi-modern and part abstract (the 'book' Faust gains forbidden knowledge from not actually a book but a small statue here, for example), but dealing with concepts, ideas and the supernatural, there's no reason why it should be 'realistic'. If anything, there isn't a sufficient sense of the human confrontation with huge concepts like eternity and the damnation of the soul, but this weakness could lie with Busoni as much as with Klaus Michael Gruber's stage production.

The singing at least is strong and impressive in its efforts to bring out and convey this deeper element within the work. Thomas Hampson gives a terrific performance of a conflicted character, the nobility of his aims undermined by ego and human failings. Alternately authoritative of purpose and thoughtful of his actions, Hampson shows Doctor Faust capable of mastery of everything but himself. Gregory Kunde gives us a Mephistopheles that is full of character and mischievousness. It's a wonderfully sung and well characterised performance. Philippe Jordan and the Zurich orchestra manage to bring all the majesty and wonder out of Busoni's score.

Links: Opernhaus Zürich