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The Devil Perks Up

Two Saturdays ago, the Göthe Institut wrapped up a two-day event on the topic of Faust, the German's favorite subject. More than two dozen participants—most of them German or German-speaking—were left by the time the final act of that "Faust Fest" commenced. Just looking at the program, it also seemed the real highlight: a talk by the lovely Ted Libbey on "Faust in Opera."

After Kaffee und Kuchen (my third chance in barely a fortnight to compare Hildabrötchen from Austrian, Swiss, and now German sources), Irmgard Wagner of the Goethe Society introduced Ted Libbey, who wondered how to fit all that he had to say, play, and show into two hours, not unlike every composer who ever tried to take the Faust material and turn it into an opera.

F. Busoni, Faust, Leitner
Among the composers who were inspired by Faust—not just Goethe's version, but also the original 1587 Historia von Dr. Johannes Fausten and Marlow's Dr. Faust—are Mendelssohn (the Scherzo in his Octet is inspired by the last lines of the Walpurgisnacht, Walpurgisnacht Oratorio)—who got to meet Goethe through his teacher Zelter—Beethoven ("Come Sea and Prosperous Voyage"), Schumann (setting "Alles Vergängliche..." from Faust II), Liszt's Faust Symphonie, Wagner (Faust Overture), J. Strauss (no relation to the other Strauss, with "Aus Faust's Leben und Werken"), as well as Boito, Busoni, Gounod, Berlioz, Schnittke, Riehm, Mansoni, and a league of others.

Ted Libbey started with Busoni, the German-Italian and his Baroquish-Romantic Faust, explicitly based on the puppet play. Atmospheric, with a tiered structure, the opening Sinfonia sets the mood. A delicious recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under Fritz Leitner from 1969 shows this beauty from its best side.

H. Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust, Sir Colin Davis
C. Gounod, Faust, Rizzi
Berlioz, who knew Faust through its French translation and introduced Liszt to the work, created La Damnation de Faust, and Gounod's Margarethe (as his Faust is known in Germany) turns it into Grand Opera, including love-stories, choruses, ballet, and all.

Schnittke's work, based on the old history (he, too, was daunted by Goethe's work?), is a load of fun if you don't mind modern music. His Historia von D. Johann Fausten is spun out of his Faust Cantata and full of eerie effects, including musical saw.

Finally—because it is as close to an operatic treatment as Faust II comes in music—Mahler's 8th was on the menu. My favorite version, with Ozawa at Tanglewood (sadly NLA, though possible to get used at Amazon), is ethereal in the most magnificent ways. (The legendary Solti recording is completely lost on me: I cannot but assume that its status is the lore of hype.) The last movement is, even though Mahler purists wince, one of the most sublime moments in music. Imagine between 350 and 1000 participants making music in subtle pianissimo tones... shudders of delight!

Informative and fun, thanks to Mr. Libbey, this talk was a delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the everlasting striving for education. Faustian, almost, only we got to keep our souls.

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