A noble effort.
Plaza Marcelino | Caracas Venezuela | 01/13/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Along the years, there's been some argument in the musical press whether Busoni was a great composer or if he rather was, as Richard Strauss's own pun on himself, a first class second rate one. Well, this work, one of the most intriguing operas written during the 20th Century, is indeed a very serious argument towards establishing Busoni among the great composers. It has been slow in gaining recognition since its premiere in 1925, with all too infrequent performances, a kind of cult item that saw the stage, alongside Pfitzner's Palestrina and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, only in solemn, festive occasions and mostly in the German-speaking orbit, the three works characterised as they are by an aura of deep philosophic content, in their different approaches dealing with the struggle of the creative artist in an hostile environment; of the three, Doktor Faust is by a notch becoming the better known, with gradually less infrequent performances during the last 15 years or so. London's first staging took place only in the 1980's and New York's the following decade, in a pioneering event at NYCO that the Met only followed in the 2000's.
The Zurich performance shown in this DVD is an all-round successful, certainly not a great, one, though resting heavily on two pillars, the first being Hampson's tour-de-force portrayal of the title role and the other Jordan's work in the pit. The performing version used is the standard Jarnach (whose otherwise exemplary job in the missing bits has as much of Busoni as Alfano's for Turandot has of Puccini, that is, nothing) completion, yet in the supplementary material conductor Jordan explains in an interview why he opted to leave aside Beaumont's alternative in spite of its use of "new" original Busoni material that emerged in the 1980's. I have a few quibbles with the rather silly make-up of both the three Cracovian students as well as of the Wittenberg ones, and the production is rather unimaginative for a work so laden with the fantastic and esoteric, but those observations need not deter you from an otherwise fascinating glimpse of a remarkable work. Collectors that came to know the opera from DG's 3-LP set from the 1970's, with Fischer-Dieskau's phenomenal Faust will keep referring back to that set (it was for a time available in CD during the 1990's) for sheer enjoyment. I don't know Nagano's early 2000's Erato CD set, recorded concurrently with Chatelet performances that are rumoured to have been put onto video tape but never issued on VHS or DVD, but those younger, curious collectors with a feel for the off-the-beaten-track repertoire will do well in snatching this 2-DVD set from the racks of their favourite music shop (as I did at Barcelona's FNAC) as soon as they see it, or pre-order here at Amazon and get a feel of this fascinating, always intriguing music. That it is, in its condition of being a work left unfinished by its author, a somewhat uneven one is true, but so is also its roughly but radically different contemporary, Turandot.
An Astonishing Achievement
G P Padillo | Portland, ME United States | 02/20/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What an exhausting, numbing, emotional experience watching this DVD was. The production is not without problems, but Hampson's performance more than compensates for anything that might hinder one's enjoyment and appreciation for this reading. This may be the finest work I've seen from him - and knowing his propensity for analyzing works and reading between the lines, Busoni's enigmatic, difficult task put out before him is precisely the type of challenge Hampson seems to revel in. He is intense, his world weary, exhausted of life beginning morphing into this superhuman persona that burns himself out trying to achieve Mephistophele's challenge "to make eternal the fulfillment of every wish and every suffering." It's exhausting just to think about!
Busoni's uncompleted opera shows everywhere a brilliant mind grappling with larger "Faustian" ideas - and a seeming frustration as how best to represent them in a piece conceived for a stage drama. The resulting work is, of course, episodic in nature without the clear linear direction and storyline we are accustomed to in "standard" opera.
Klaus Michael Grüber's production for Zurich seems intent to maximize that episodic nature and the attempt to flow the acts together with a cinematic liquidity makes the "choppiness" (for lack of better word) of the work all the more noticeable. The enormous stage design seemed to me a blending of a hyper-realism mixed with the symbolic. To that end, watching this I was reminded (more than once) of the great silent movies, and the larger-than-life performances, odd costumings (for all but Faust and Mephistpheles) all enhance that feeling. At the same time, Grüber's staging has a church pageant feel to it, almost enhancing the static qualities of the opera Mr. Hampson appears to be one of those always good looking fellows whose looks actually seem to only improve with age and here, even exhausted and greasyhaired, he looks terrific. The voice, always attractive is gorgeous in this incredibly difficult music and even when the music threatens to overwhelm him he is never less than compelling - giving everything he has. The last half
hour of this piece is my favorite as it's almost entirely Faust in this Wagnerian length soliloquy of ineffable beauty and power.
Hampson is at his absolute zenith here - watching him grapple with all of the ideas presented here, the reality that he alone cannot attain what he set out to, the realization of his mortality all set to Busoni's stunning score - I was overwhelmed by it, completely undone. I know many find this work difficult going, but I really believe even if one doesn't care particularly for most of the opera, this scene alone is worth the price of the set. He is THAT amazing here.
Gregory Kunde has the unenviable task of singing the other impossible role, Mephistopheles. The tessitura alone is a killer, but Kunde makes it all work and is often thrilling vocally, while physically his devil comes off as wry and deadpan. The combination works wonderfully.
The lovely Sandra Trattnigg is the Duchess of Parma and ably sings her difficult aria more than adequately . . . admirably, even, but while she has an attractive voice the role really isn't a great one and she (whether directed or on her own) doesn't make quite the meal out of it that I hoped she might.
Some of the costumes are outlandish and downright weird, which, I'm guess serves to heighten the difference between the Devil, Faust and everyone else in the world, but some of them were (to me) fairly ghastly.
Philippe Jordan looks like he should be starring in movies rather than conducting operas, but he does a (mostly) superb job with the Zurich forces and nearly all of the music comes across magnificently. The one disappointment I had was in the long Symphonic Intermezzo (which begins the 2nd disc). It is dispatched with precision, attention to detail and amazing dynamics, but it felt "soulless" to me. There was too much of a detached quality that got under my skin as I want this intense, mostly soft music
to "burn" and it did just about the opposite here. This was difficult for me to
understand (but clearly an artistic choice . . . duh) as the rest of the score
has that "burning" that Busoni has infused it with.
Busoni's opera is, as Hampson refers to it a complete "masterpiece." Despite its episodic nature - perhaps because of it - one can experience the ideas of Faust better than in any of the other Faustian operas. In a few hours his Doktor Faust encompasses far more of those ideas than could possibly be gleaned than were one able to spend the same amount of time with the sources from which it is derived. It seems almost as if told in a dream-like state, where anything at all is possible with little to no regard for the banalities of realism.
Musically, Busoni embraces so many styles - there is Bach, Beethoven and Schumann aplenty in the score. During one section of the great final monologue I always feel the presence of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" (even though that work came much later). It is a glorious score wed to a difficult to grasp libretto, but I don't necessarily consider that a flaw, but rather more of a challenge to the listener.
This is one tough bird of an opera. Busoni almost guaranteed his opera would be difficult on all accounts: to cast, to interpret, and to sit through. Despite a mostly ear ravishing score, it's not one to "sit back and enjoy," like some other works, but this production - musically and theatrically, yields mighty rewards.
The Arthaus DVD and is Very Highly Recommended.
A different and Dark Faust
A. Lupu | Rochester, MN USA | 11/15/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Although the libretto of this opera is not based on Goethe's Faust, it has similar profound psychological tones. In short, Faust makes a pact with the Devil to give him powers to obtain whatever he wants, and still he feels empty. He tries love, stealing the Duchess on her wedding day; and fame as a professor, but still the same isolation persists. Only at the end he does something that fulfills him, he gives his life for the life of his son (the eternal perpetuation of life). I am a little bet disappointed that this life given scene is not stressed enough in this production. Otherwise the production is very well done. The music is difficult to perform and has as many styles as one can think, may be stressing the many facets of the mind, although it is always within a dark atmosphere. The staging is appropriately dark with the exception of the first scene, may be the only one in the real world. The rest of the scenes are all dark and out of reality, only portraying Faust's dark psychology. Interestingly, Faust is a baritone and Mephistopheles is a tenor, in contrast to the general perception of the devil having a lower voice. In this opera, the lower and darker character is Faust; Mephistopheles is a steady character with obvious intentions.
Thomas Hampson is just perfect, his singing and his acting is compelling. His music and the acting takes you directly into Faust state of mind.
I strongly recommend you read the booklet before watching the Opera. The interview with Hampson is also worth watching.
This DVD is recommended for those seeking more than just entertainment.
The Myth is reduced
Jacques COULARDEAU | OLLIERGUES France | 11/23/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A surprising opera inspired by both parts of, Goethe's Faust. In fact the first part is short-circuited and the opera concentrates on the second part. Strangely enough it could be inspired from Marlowe. It tells the trip through time and space as some kind of entertaining show to a couple of noble people, a Graf and his Gräfin, instead of the Pope and the Emperor. Some of the historic more than historical characters are added to both Marlowe's and Goethe's versions. Helen of Troy is kept, but Salome and John the Baptist are added. It comes of course from Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss that could not be ignored before 1924. The meaning of the opera then is not the farcical drama of Marlowe nor the tragic-comic tragedy of Goethe. Work is stated as being the salvation of man but the opera is bleak as for any future for Faust. Faust is completely condemned, damned in this opera with the death of a baby, which is a direct allusion to the melodramatic adaptation by Gounod, but is a distortion of Goethe's version: in Goethe Faust has a son from Helen of Troy but he dies by the mishap attributed to Dedalus' son, Icarus, who flew too high with his father's wax wings, Faust becoming that inventor who does not always dominates his inventions and their dangers. In the opera, this baby gives to Faust an absolute and final condemnation and sentence to damnation as an infanticide, which he is not at all in Goethe's Faust, neither in the first part, nor in the second. In the first part Gretchen is condemned by a protestant court of justice for fornication. The child survives of course. But in Goethe Faust is saved by God on the advice and intermission of three women, Gretchen being the third one who invokes love as a salvable quality. This feminine element is kept in the stage directions by the last image of a cross that dominates the final act and on which a nude woman is positioned with a pile of thick red ropes. The Christianization is in Goethe but the feminization of Christ is in this production of the opera. A modern re-interpretation in the same way as the book the students are bringing at the beginning is transformed in this production into some Egyptian goddess standing on a lion. But this production contains another strange element right at the end when a nude young man crosses the stage behind the cross and behind the shelves of the setting. It is a direct allusion to the nude young boy that runs away in the night when Jesus is arrested in Mark's gospel. These modern elements hide in a way a Semitic symbolism heavily present in the six successive forms of the devil called by Faust, numbered in their ranks. The sixth one is Mephistopheles, six like the number of Solomon who is brought in at the end of the opera in flesh and bones along with Salome, John the Baptist and the executioner. This identification of the devil with the main Jewish symbol is reinforced by the director who identifies Mephistopheles before he steps on the stage as a prop that is a triple red ram's head with six shining eyes. Here we reach David's star and the ram is the sacrificial ram of Abraham when he plans to sacrifice his own son to God, be he Isaac or Ishmael. But the anti-Semitic element here is in perfect pre-figuration of the use of Solomon's number at the beginning of Metropolis by Fritz Lang. The music is typical of the time, quite in keeping with Richard Strauss, but quite far from Alban Berg. Rather dramatic but essentially melodious. That music does not try to break any musical standard rule or convention.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University of Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University of Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID Boulogne Billancourt