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30.5.07

New Opera Notes: Faust's Long, Slow Agony

Faust by Philippe Fénelon, directed by Pet Halmen, Théâtre du Capitole, ToulouseThe Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse premiered Faust, the new opera that it commissioned from Philippe Fénelon, on May 25. Fénelon assembled his own libretto, adapting the legend directly (and in German) from Nikolaus Lenau's Faust: Ein Gedicht (1836). Francis Carlin published a review (More modern operatic agony, May 29) in the Financial Times:

For his fourth opera, Fénelon has adapted Lenau’s profoundly pessimistic poem in its original German and the vocal line gags on its abstruse philosophy. The text needs radical pruning to make it opera-viable but Fénelon actually complicates matters by turning on his grand style and throwing the orchestral book at it: for much of the evening, the singers battle it out with thickly scored, hyperactive music that shows off technical virtuosity but dulls the ear with unvarying dynamics. The second of the two acts temporarily abandons the energetic redrafting of Berg’s post-expressionism (think Lulu) for a choral passage redolent of Mussorgsky and a passion-style choral; but both influences seem like padding to help the opera pass the one hour watershed for modern music, beyond which audiences start to fret. There’s more of the same in a dramatic interlude for taped organ, one of those gloriously bright French instruments, and a curious collage of machine noises. This also serves to fill time when the sets are being changed but it still feels like an arbitrary graft. The fleeting quote from the finale of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto sticks out like a sore thumb.

[...] This Faust left me wondering once again why modern composers so often make life so difficult for themselves and their audiences by choosing texts or subjects that are unsuited to operatic treatment. Fénelon has unwittingly written another chapter in the long, slow agony of contemporary opera.
It's funny because it's true. For some context, we go to a French reviewer, Pierre Gervasoni (Un "Faust" sans fantastique ni démesure, May 30) in Le Monde (my translation): "As opposed to Goethe, this is a Faust with no Gretchen, a Faust whom Lenau shows in the midst of thinning out the leaves from the flower of ultimate knowledge. It is a Faust without modernity that Fénelon unfolds very professionally for more than two hours. [...] There was no Faustian excess witnessed until a long, unhinged organ solo (as if Fénelon meant to pay his debts to Olivier Messiaen, the Christian guiding light who was also his composition teacher) and the phantasmagoric universe evoked only by a sequence of musique concrète."

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