Revival an intense stirrer of the soul

Review: The Metropolitan Opera's `Doktor Faust' brings new life to Busoni's dark, enthralling tale.

January 10, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If the legend of Faust had not emerged centuries ago, it would surely appear now. In a world obsessed with acquiring untold wealth, conscience-free power over other lives and impossible physical beauty, the notion of selling one's soul to the devil doesn't seem the slightest bit implausible.

And if a composer were to turn this diabolical idea into an opera today, the result might be very much like Ferruccio Busoni's "Doktor Faust," which premiered in Germany 75 years ago and received its first Metropolitan Opera performance Monday evening.

The genius of Busoni's creation - and the Met's strikingly post-modernist production (co-produced with the Salzburg Festival) - is that it eliminates all traces of sentimentality or romance in the story, as made familiar by the great German poet Goethe. It cuts straight to the vexing heart of the matter and asks us to consider some of the darkest elements in human nature.

It also presents us with a Faust plagued by doubts about his hellish pact, and who ultimately finds a way to redeem, if not himself, a little bit of humanity.

A starker contrast to Charles Gounod's "Faust," the favorite operatic treatment of Goethe's tale, would be hard to summon.

The Italian-born, largely Berlin-based Busoni was a brilliant pianist, a productive teacher (his students included music-theater composer Kurt Weill and conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos), and a hard-to-categorize composer.

Neither a dyed-in-the-Wagner romantic nor a wild-eared adventurer, Busoni wrote music that never really sounds like anyone else's. Its stylistic quirkiness makes it engaging; at its best, inventiveness makes it memorable.

"Doktor Faust," which he left incomplete at his death in 1924, sums up Busoni's creative life and fulfills his ideal of opera as something "unconventional, half-religious, uplifting, but also stimulating and entertaining."

Just about everything in "Doktor Faust" is unconventional. Consider the organizational structure - a spoken poem at the start; an orchestral prelude with backstage chorus; two "prologues" and an "intermezzo" constituting of a sort of first act; three "scenes" under the title "principal action"; and a final poem, again recited.

The Met production, directed with exceptional imagination by Peter Mussbach and designed likewise by Erich Wonder, understandably dispenses with those poems. Getting them to fit into a theatrical concept would be tricky; the moral-preaching can't help but be anti-climactic after the final, intense scene of Faust bequeathing his spirit to his dead, illegitimate child.

But Mussbach denies us the image Busoni called for in that last scene - an adolescent rising from the spot where the little corpse was. The sight of Faust walking upstage and disappearing into the shadows, clutching the baby as he goes, doesn't quite have the same impact. It also dilutes Mephistopheles' last, ironic line, "This man seems to have met with an accident." Supposedly, it's directed at Faust's lifeless body, but here, its said to an empty stage.

For that finale, the Met is using the version that Busoni colleague Philipp Jarnach fashioned out of the composer's unfinished sketches. A more satisfying, subtler edition, done in 1984 by Antony Beaumont, would arguably make a better fit for this production.

Otherwise, Mussbach's choices are consistently persuasive. So are the Euro-flash images of Wonder's scenic pictures (a series of guardrails at the opening, a weird sand-dune-like landscape for the Court of Parma scene, a giant eye casting a wary glance on Faust) and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer's stylized costumes (lots of fedora hats and trench coats, and stylized commedia dell'arte outfits for the philosophy-arguing students).

On Monday, baritone Thomas Hampson gave a commanding interpretation of the title role, rich in tone and expressive shading, dramatically affecting at every turn. Robert Brubaker took a valiant stab at the high-lying tenor music of Mephistopheles; his voice gave out toward the end, but his subtly menacing portrayal never faltered.

Among the strong supporting cast particularly vivid contributions came from Mark Oswald (a Soldier), Katarina Dalayman (Duchess of Parma), David Kuebler (Duke of Parma) and Peter Rose (Wagner). The chorus made an imposing sound. The famed Met orchestra sailed gloriously through the long score under the sensitive, propulsive direction of Philippe Auguin.

All in all, this rare and welcome revival of "Doktor Faust" is a stunner. Its sights and sounds don't fade easily.

There are five more performances through Jan. 29. Call 212-362-6000.

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