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9.7.08

Ionarts-at-Large: Munich 2008 Opera Festival Premiere - Busoni's Doktor Faust

The great tale of “Faust”, has fascinated, inspired, and daunted artists since the 16th century when Johann Spies’ Historia von D. Johann Fausten first put the legend in print. Marlowe and Goethe, Rembrandt and Delacroix, Oscar Wilde, F.W.Murnau, Thomas Mann, Václav Havel, and Radiohead have all created works based on or around Faust.


Composers, too, have been inspired – usually via Goethe: Wagner wrote a Faust Overture (not his most inspired moment), and Liszt the Faust Symphony. Mahler’s Eight Symphony bases its second part onFaust II. Schubert composed the Lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, and Schumann his overly ambitious, terrifically strange (and strangely terrific) Scenes from Goethe's Faust. (The good recordings –HerrewegheAbbadoKlee – are out of print, but a new one including Christian Gerhaher might be issued soon.) Lili Boulanger contributed a half hour cantata Faust et Hélène, Dusapin Faustus, The Last Night(owing more to Marlowe than Goethe). Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and even Adams’ Doctor Atomic are adaptations – albeit loose ones – of Faust.

“Only Mozart” (who had already died), did Goethe proclaim as capable of writing an opera of his Faust – but that did not keep others from trying. Arrigo Boito succeeded most resoundingly with Mefistofele, Berlioz’ “légende dramatique” La Damnation de Faust offers the most boldly literal operatic take, and Gounod’s Faust (formerly known as Maguerite) makes it an example of how grand French opera should be.

“German” (in the loosest sense) composers must have found the Goethe-model a little too daunting. First Louis Spohr (“Faust”), most recently Alfred Schnittke (“Die Historia von D. Johann Fausten”), and inbetween Ferruccio Busoni with Doktor Faust all tackled the subject from different directions. Busoni used the 16th century puppet plays – the same source that inspired Goethe – to avoid direct comparison. But he also drew on Heinrich Heine’s Der Doktor Faust – Ein Tanzpoem and very likely on F.T.Vischer’sFaust III.

From these sources Busoni created one of the great German 20th century operas, an opera that is finally catching on with recent performances in New York, San Francisco, Stuttgart, Zurich, Berlin (Unter den Linden), and now Munich, where it opened the 2008 Opera Festival.

Director Nicolaus Brieger (with Hermann Feuchter’s sets, Margit Koppendorfer’s costumes, and Alexander Koppelmann’s lighting) achieved the small miracle of staging Busoni’s magnum opus for the festival premiere without incurring any of the near-customary “boos” that accompany them. If the lack of vocal disagreement was accompanied by slightly less than enthusiastic cheering, it might have been because many ears had difficulty digesting the nearly three hours of Busoni’s music – even 80 years after its premiere.



In Zurich, Philippe Jordan turned the orchestral score into the highlight next to the superb, fittingly haughty Faust of Thomas Hampson’s. In Munich Tomáš Netopil, winner of the first Sir Georg Solti Conducting Competition, navigated rather dutifully through the score, neglecting nothing and offering – occasionally – gripping moments. The main attractions were Brieger’s direction, the successful effort and achievement of the singers, but most of all Busoni’s opera itself.

In turns grim and fantastical, Wolfgang Koch (Doktor Faust), John Daszak (Mephistopheles), Raymond Very (Duke, Valentin – “the Girl’s brother”, et al.), Catherine Naglestad (Duchess of Parma), and Steven Humes (Wagner) sang and acted their way through this beastly, beautiful work that engulfs the senses with renaissance sounds and chorales, a romantic chromatic haze, expected Wagnerian touches and unexpected moments of Offenbach. Steven Humes had little voice-time showcase his skills, but his strong, blooming baritone pushed Wagner – who later takes over Faust’s job as Rector magnificus – to the forefront. Koch’s baritone carried very well and never tired. His and Daszak’s performance are primarily the ones where effort turned into achievement and achievement into something extraordinary. Daszak who gave Mephistopheles his tenor, was piercing in his comfortable range, offered a positive sense of struggle here and there, and covered by the orchestra only early on. The female relief of the opera, Catherine Naglestad, charmed the audience with strong singing and acting, even with a strong metallic vibration in her voice. No one else exceeded or fell short of reasonable expectations and requirements.



Perhaps because there was much staging to pay attention to: Faust and his puppet-likenesses (wonderfully animated by Peter Lutz, Lutz Grossmann, and Rike Schubert); the set that looks like Rem Koolhaas meets Starship Enterprise; the vaguely Wehrmacht-like soldiers who drill organ pipes through Valentine’s body when Mephisto has him killed on the altar; and especially the naked, bronzed demons that dangle above Faust as he summons Lucifer’s servants Gravis, Levis, Asmodus, Belzebub, and Megaros. That last being the most iconic scene of the production – a visual coups de théâtre.

Mephistopheles himself is the red-gloved, wig-wearing seducer who dons a bikini-top on his bulky, hairy frame. The grotesque androgyny doesn’t last long, thankfully, but long enough to start wondering just how real Mephistopheles is to Faust, and how much he is a figment- a creation of his will and imagination. From there, Faust moves toward ‘will and realization’ of having left convention, society, and morality so far behind that no redemption is possible for him. His prayers impotent, he heaves himself beyond categories of good and evil, God and Devil. He manifests himself (or wishes to do so) in ‘will’ itself. The bubble of grandeur, if there was one, is pricked immediately when Mephistopheles, in the guise of the Night Watchman, finds Faust’s corps and drags him away sardonically stating: “Should this man have been met with misfortune?”

A visual feast and audial joy, the Munich Doktor Faust – played in the original, unfinished version, not the Jarnach or Beaumont completion – is not a production for the ages, but it will do much in brining this fascinating composer back to the opera stages where he deserves to be much more often. And eventually not just with Doktor Faust but also –eventually– his TurandotDie Brautwahl, and Arlecchino.


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