23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
G P Padillo
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
As musical innovators go, Busoni talked a great game. His little book from 1907, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, was very forward-thinking and influential, and as a teacher Busoni mentored many progressive musical thinkers from Varèse to Grainger to Weill. Busoni's own music, though, has struggled to overcome a reputation as conservative and bland -- neither as memorable as its great Romantic predecessors, nor as intriguingly original as its great modernist successors. Busoni has often been typecast into a kind of in-between stylistic ghetto analogous to that occupied by Janácek before his recent heyday. I myself carried this prejudice into my first encounter with Doktor Faust, whereupon I was delighted to discover that musically and dramatically it blows away any other major Busoni composition. It's still not at the level of Wozzeck, Oedipus Rex or Bluebeard's Castle, but given a sympathetic production it can hold its own with most other first-generation modernist operas.
Although Busoni was Italian, he lived much of his life in German-speaking countries, and Doktor Faust is set in that language. Busoni worked on the opera from 1916 through his death in 1924, and never finished the text nor the music for the work's ending. In Busoni's libretto, which he adapted himself from mostly pre-Goethe sources, the character Gretchen is marginalized (and indeed isn't heard at all), whereas we do encounter the Duke and Dutchess of Parma, the latter getting seduced by the magician Faust. Some have criticized the libretto as rather shallow. And although there are two completed editions offered by two different musicians, there's still much conjecture about exactly what might have happened to the title character had Busoni been able to give him an authoritative denouement.
Musically the opera reflects Busoni's late, modernist-influenced style, and much of the music specifically reminds me of early Hindemith (the nattering student debate that opens the Wittenberg tavern scene could have come out of Cardillac). The music accompanying the gift of the magic book by the three "students" is drawn from Busoni's Piano Sonatina No. 2 (where it's written without bar lines), and features some of the most dissonant, atonal chords in the composer's output. The opera calls for the large orchestra typical of its time, including triple woodwinds, mallet instruments and organ. The latter instrument is featured prominently in the first intermezzo, which is set in a church (whose organist might as well have been Charles Ives, for the very chromatic and assertive solo supplied by Busoni). Orchestral players, along with choristers, are often positioned offstage and otherwise spatially distributed in elaborate ways, and this production actually used four conductors in total (though only Philippe Jordan is visible). As for the voice types, Busoni makes the "obvious" choice of a baritone for the title character. But the use of a tenor in the role of Mephistopheles is a great innovation: instead of the stereotypically deep and "sinister" bass voice you hear in Boito or Gounod, Busoni's devil is a conniving "whiny" character, sounding not all that different from Wagner's Mime (though without the latter's incompetence).
This production omits the spoken Prologue and Epilogue (though it still clocks in just under three hours). It also uses, controversially, the older Jarnach completion, rather than the newer Beaumont edition, which significantly changes the ending, both dramatically and musically. To hear what you're missing, you should buy Kent Nagano's 1998 recording, which gives you the option of either conclusion. As an aside, I might mention Jossi Wieler's admired 2004 production for San Francisco Opera which dispensed with completions altogether, leaving the ending ambiguous. In his "bonus feature" interview, conductor Jordan reveals that he prefers the musically cumulative and "augmentative" effect of the Jarnach version. Regardless of your feelings on the matter, the ending is musically stunning in this production. Mephistopheles speaks the final line "Sollte dieser Mann etwa verunglückt sein?" ("Could it be that this man has had an accident?"). Then the opera ends on perhaps the most colorful E♭ minor chord (or is it D♯ minor?) ever scored, its changing timbres suggesting that whatever Faust's final attempts at good deeds, his ultimate end is non-redemptive.
Any production of Doktor Faust revolves heavily around its two lead singers. Thomas Hampson has set the bar for the title role since 1999 and seems at home at Zurich, which turns out to be the base for his vocal coach Horst Günter. Though born and educated in America, Hampson is comfortable discussing the opera in German as evinced by his interview (the second of the two bonus tracks). As for Mephistopheles, tenor Gregory Kunde, another American, clearly relishes this rare opportunity to play a bad guy.
The recorded sound is quite good. I was pleasantly surprised with the balance between voices and orchestra. The only engineering regret is that the orchestral sound is occasionally flat. In their defense the technical crew had to deal with offstage choruses and offstage musicians (voices are always coming out of nowhere, Busoni emphasizing the supernatural), not to mention the large orchestra. The live footage from 2007 also reveals the admirable discipline of European opera audiences who allow the most delicate of scene endings to be heard (North American audiences would be applauding as soon as the horizontal curtains started to close).
In the history of musical adaptations of the Faust legend, Busoni's opera stands as an important bridge between the Romantic (in various senses!) endeavors of Berlioz, Gounod and Mahler (all followers of Goethe), and the less sentimental postmodern approaches of Schnittke, Pousseur, Dusapin and even Stan Brakhage in his Faust Film: An Opera. At present, this Jordan/Grüber production is the only video representation available of this important but seldom mounted 20th century opera. Hats off to Arthaus for bringing it to us.