All Fired Up

Before he died in 1995, far too young at age 48, Christopher Keene used his muscle as general director of the City Opera to introduce New York to at least a dozen key twentieth-century works that we should have seen years ago. One of the most important was Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust, admired since its world premiere in 1925 for its lofty spiritual aspirations and musical richness. The City Opera’s 1992 staging was a noble effort, but it is not surprisingly outclassed in nearly every respect by the Metropolitan’s current new production, imported from the Salzburg Festival, starring Thomas Hampson in the title role and utilizing Philipp Jarnach’s completion of the final scene. Doktor Faust is a tough challenge, for audiences as much as for any company bold enough to produce it, but the rewards are great.

When he wrote his text, Busoni consciously distanced himself from Goethe’s epic drama about the legendary scholar-magician, and instead worked from medieval sources and puppet plays written closer to the time of the factual Dr. Johannes Faust, who practiced in the early sixteenth century. His treatment is also far removed from other more frequently encountered operas based on the subject – whoever expects the pretty tunes of Gounod’s Faust, the elaborate spectacle of Boito’s Mefistofele, or the fevered Romanticism of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust will be disappointed. Busoni was determined to portray Faust as the ultimate questing hero, a man who seeks salvation not through God or the devil but through a belief in the superhuman will of a thinking, creative individual. Live fully in the present, the composer tells us, but the mind and spirit must always be focused on the future.

Busoni unquestionably saw himself as Faust. His opera is in the grand line of German Känstleroper, a semi-autobiographical genre – Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler, and Pfitzner’s Palestrina are famous examples – in which the librettist-composer portrays the artist in conflict with himself and society. Few composers were more Faustian than Busoni, a complex and paradoxical figure who combined the cultural backgrounds and temperaments of a German mother and an Italian father – one of his more splendid fantasies was a staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Enrico Caruso as the Evangelist. An influential pedagogue who welcomed dozens of students into his Berlin studio (my own teacher, Otto Luening, was a pupil), Busoni wrestled with the problems of creative musical aesthetics all his life, although he is still more remembered as a pianist of phenomenal virtuosity than as a composer.

He labored on Doktor Faust from 1914 to his death, in 1924, and in every measure one can almost hear him singing the very words he gave to his Faust: “Give me Genius – give me its pain, too, that I may be happy like no other.” The score also faithfully reflects Busoni’s idealistic musical credo: “A composer, a creator, brings to a single opera all that moves him, all that swims before his eyes, all that is within his power to achieve; he becomes a musical Dante and his work a Divine Comedy.” Bach was a major influence, and like so many of that composer’s scores, Doktor Faust is an amazing compendium constructed from nearly two dozen preexisting satellite works – songs, piano music, orchestral pieces – and fashioned into a dazzling mosaic. The musical variety is immense, ranging from magisterial choral polyphony with a medieval flavor to passages of Mahlerian pathos, from neoclassic set pieces to free-form romantic effusions such as the Duchess of Parma’s gorgeous aria, all surrounded by the special luminosity of Busoni’s orchestra.

Even though the libretto is intentionally episodic, Faust’s progress toward enlightenment is seamless and the action contains many wonderful theatrical moments. One of the most spectacular comes early on when Faust conjures up the servants of Lucifer as six tongues of flame, finally selecting Mephistopheles to serve him because that spirit, as he sings in his eerily high-pitched tenor, is as swift as the thoughts of man. Later, when Faust is transformed into a dangerously handsome young magician, he entertains the glittering court of the Duke of Parma by brazenly evoking erotic apparitions of history’s legendary lovers and seducing the Duchess, who later bears his child. In the moving final scene, the dying Faust, in one last mighty act of will, transfers his soul to his dead son, who rises from the ground with a flowering branch in his hand and strides into the night, carrying Faust’s vision toward a realm beyond good and evil.

The Met production, directed by Peter Mussbach and designed by Erich Wonder, is thoughtful and intelligent, but it is also, I think, austere to a fault. None of these visual coups comes off with much theatrical energy, and the stage action is often fatally inert. Perhaps Mussbach finds Busoni’s explicit directions for the final scene too corny for a modern audience to accept, but to have Faust, still alive, merely walk upstage with his child cradled in his arms is a feeble substitute. It also takes the edge off of Mephistopheles’s ironic comment, uttered over Faust’s corpse: “Can this man have met with an accident?” At least the bleak, vaguely contemporary landscape through which Faust makes his virtual journey in long trench coat and broad-brimmed hat is consistent in its gray industrialism, but the drab images seldom illuminate Busoni’s own passionate pilgrimage.

The musical aspects of the production can scarcely be faulted. Thomas Hampson has never given a better performance at the Met, projecting the full expressive range of Faust’s dilemma and singing a long, demanding role with unflinching stamina and firm control. Robert Brubaker’s peppery high tenor is perfect for Mephistopheles, and apart from a few tentative moments, he gives a virtuoso performance. There is also strong work by David Kuebler (the Duke of Parma), Peter Rose (Wagner/Master of Ceremonies), and Mark Oswald (Soldier), as well as luscious vocalism from Katarina Dalayman, who sings the Duchess’s aria the way one has always longed to hear it. The orchestra gives its best for Philippe Auguin, who lets us hear both the spirit and the sinew of this extraordinary music. Flaws and all, the Met’s Doktor Faust must be seen by anyone who takes opera seriously. And seize the moment – there is no indication right now that this production will ever be back again.

Doktor Faust
Metropolitan Opera co-production, with the Salzburg Festival, of the opera by Ferruccio Busoni. Staged by Peter Mussbach, designed by Erich Wonder, conducted by Philippe Auguin, starring Thomas Hampson, Robert Brubaker, Katarina Dalayman, David Kuebler, Peter Rose, and Mark Oswald.

All Fired Up