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The egghead's "Gioconda".

The composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was of mixed Italian-German parentage, but his life and career was spent largely in Berlin. In his lifetime, he was famous throughout Europe and the United States as a formidable technician of the piano and one of the great virtuosos in piano history. Like many other virtuosos of his time (and especially his idol Franz Liszt), Busoni created portmanteau piano pieces, many of which, especially under the rubric "Bach-Busoni," exist in recitals to this day. Busoni was renowned as a pianist, but he wished to be known as a composer. His compositional oeuvre, however, is spotty. Aside from the portmanteau works, it includes several operas and an outsized piano concerto, which in its romantic pretensions is risible but enormous fun, combining Lisztian rodomontade and a final choral uplift. His one-act parody opera, Arlecchino, however, with its debt to the commedia dell'arte (the Italian side of Busoni), is a gem of wit and benevolent satire.

Busoni strove for a great compositional statement, and after waffling through several ideas for a grand opera settled on the German obsession: Faust. He knew he was entering on a crowded field, peopled musically by Gounod, Berlioz and even Liszt (whose symphonic treatment of the subject probably came closest musically to the towering example of Goethe). Busoni staked his claim by insisting that his version did not follow Goethe, but harked back to the medieval puppet plays that were the genesis of the idea. Indeed, the very disjointed and episodic treatment he devised (he was his own librettist) seems to support that contention, as does the fact that, in his treatment, Faust, not Mephistopheles, takes the central position in controlling his destiny, with the devil becoming simply Faust's wily lackey. Busoni's Faust, moreover, is not heroic, but a coward and a manipulator who has already seduced and abandoned someone before meeting Mephisto.

Busoni emphasized the centrality of Faust by writing the role for a baritone--no featherheaded tenors here!--and transforming the devil into a character tenor with a fearsomely high tessitura. There is little doubt that Busoni looked to Liszt, whose conception of Mephisto was made up, not of his own themes, but of distortions of the themes of others.

Faust was on Busoni's mind as early as 1906, and he began serious work on it in 1910, completing the libretto in 1914. He died in 1924, leaving the ending unfinished, and his pupil Phillip Jarnach completed it for the premiere in Dresden in 1925. From that time on, Doktor Faust has been the darling of the intelligentsia. In part, this is owing to the fact that Busoni was highly esteemed as a scholar and thinker, but it is also because he created a work that deliberately left behind the boulevard delights of Gounod and the romantic flamboyance of Berlioz to confront the genius of Goethe himself--even if he disclaimed its parentage. Similarly, in a operatic world increasingly dominated by "popular" works such as those of Puccini and the veristic composers, Doktor Faust represented the continuation of the "uplifted" German tradition, in direct contradistinction from the grandiose works of Wagner, whose music and philosophy Busoni detested.

Other important German philosophical operas of the early twentieth century--Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina and Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler--have never achieved the level of popularity that Doktor Faust has (though I consider both of them stronger works), and the only other German twentieth century opera to challenge its status is The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Busoni's pupil Kurt Weill. In the current Grove Dictionary of Opera, Antony Beaumont, who himself has provided an ending for the opera, claims it is "widely accepted as one of the outstanding operas of the twentieth century."

That claim, outside the fevered academic circles, is difficult to justify. The episodic nature of the libretto is a serious hindrance: almost a third of it is over before the bargain with the devil is struck, and a big chunk of it concerns Faust's relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Parma--he runs off with the latter on her wedding day--two stick figures of little interest. Busoni's finest dramatic inspiration was to set the climactic scene in a deserted street in winter. Faust finally accepts his end, puts down his dead child, and dies, bequeathing his unshakeable eternal will to the corpse. Out of it rises a young man (presumably the Future). Mephisto, in disguise as a Night Watchman (throughout the opera he appears in various disguises), comes up to the dead Faust and speaks (not sings) the famous final line of the opera: "Sollte dieser Mann verungluckt sein?"--"Has this man met with a misfortune?"

The fact that the last line is spoken is telling, since the central failure of the opera is its musicalization. With strong and effective music, the libretto could succeed, but Busoni's talents were of a far more restricted order. The best music lies in the passages up to the sealing of Faust's bargain; after that, the inspiration thins, becoming ever more threadbare. The last scene is as unsatisfying musically as that of another unfinished opera of the 1920s, Puccini's Turandot. It is interesting that, despite his denials, Busoni cannot escape the clutches of Goethe in his retelling of the story. Faust's soliloquy in the second scene ("Traum der Jugend") brings his character close to the Faust of the second part of Goethe's poem. Here, however, the musical underpinning is weak, and the great statement cannot carry the emotional weight that, for instance, Berlioz provided for his Faust in his soliloquy at a similar position in his work.

Some of the orchestral portions, notably the sarabande, do possess a flickering life, and Busoni's mind did impose a variety of patterns on the work. Given his interest in early music, Busoni used dance forms, counterpoint, and fugue to stitch together the disparate scenes, and this intellectualization of the material has always been an appealing feature of Doktor Faust. What is unfortunate, however, is that Busoni was working the same territory at approximately the same time as a greater German composer. Alban Berg's Wozzeck, with its more thorough and musically inventive examination of how to make a dramatically viable operatic retelling, effectively obliterated Busoni's experiments (as Berg's work obliterated the Wozzeck of Manfred Gurlitt).

Busoni's Doktor Faust, then, is a classic example of a composer's reach far exceeding his grasp, but its accomplishments no less than the esteem in which it is held in Europe justify its being given a production at the Metropolitan Opera. I once called Doktor Faust "the egghead's Gioconda," and if Ponchielli's tuneful and addlebrained "Grand" opera still plays the Lincoln Center house--which it does--there is no reason why Busoni's opera should not. The production that made its Met debut on January 8 originated in Salzburg, at the 1999 festival. It was directed by Peter Mussbach, with sets by Erich Wonder, costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, and lighting by Konrad Lindenberg. The production was an additional obstacle to the opera's success.

It is mandatory in Europe for directors of opera and theater to impose a directorial "concept" on the work at hand, and critics are trained to deplore productions that seek to reproduce what the composer, librettist, or playwright intended. In older work especially, there has to be a contemporary spin put onto the story. In part, of course, this attitude derives from boredom with the work as it has been seen, but the attitude goes deeper: that a work of art is only a model and not a finished product--a model to be shaped by director and designer. This attitude extends to world premieres as well: Patrice Chereau's setting of the last act of the completed Lulu at the Paris Opera had nothing to do with what Berg intended.

What Mussbach decided to do with Doktor Faust was to give it a non-dramatic reading, highlighting the grotesque aspects of the libretto and downplaying the magic elements and the inherent drama. His tortured program note (another invariable feature of the "concept" production) about Faust's autistic journey inside his head (whatever that means) only accentuated the muddle. Thus Faust and Mephisto were seen as halves of a whole, both in trench coats and fedoras (the classic outfit of the European staging), with Faust looking like a concentration-camp victim until he as transformed into an aging hippie and with Mephisto in your basic black without any attempt at disguise. The first scene used some rolling railway cars to effect, but after that lassitude took over. The Parma scene was overpopulated with comic figures (derived from Arlecchino?). Faust is meant to conjure up visions of the past and to change day into night, but these were prosaically rendered as some kind of cabaret entertainment, and largely lost in the shuffle of bodies. The tavern scene, with its duelling Catholic and Protestant students (a choral episode clearly modelled on Berlioz, who did it better), was treated as a slapstick commedia dell'arte intermezzo. Admittedly, the risen child carrying a blooming branch in the final scene is not easy to bring off onstage today, but Mussbach didn't try. There is no child, and there is no dead Faust: he wanders into the ether upstage, and Mephisto is left to speak his line to emptiness. The empty stage, of course, is symbolic, but it is symbolic of more, for with the thinning-out of the music this non-dramatic approach is disastrous. The last hour and a half of the opera becomes a wasteland, to the detriment of whatever merits the score in fact possesses.

The cast was quite strong, with Robert Brubaker a winning Mephisto and Katarina Dalayman properly sensual as the Duchess. The large supporting cast also offered excellent work, and the conductor Philippe Auguin led a knowledgable performance, though one missed the dramatic authority that James Levine would have brought to the score (he withdrew at the last moment because of illness).

Yet the evening's success, such as it was, lay almost exclusively with the singing and acting of Thomas Hampson as Faust. This is a gruelling role--long and often vocally exposed--and given the circumstances of this production it would seem to be heroically difficult to bring off, since Faust more than ever has to be the emotional and histrionic center. Hampson as an artist is one of the finest of American singers, for the range of his musical interests, for the quality of his solid baritone, and for his cogent opinions, both written and spoken. He is at Horne in both opera and in lieder (of all kinds), and he welcomes challenges. All too often, however, there is a distanced quality about Hampson's performances, as if he stands apart from his performing self and silently admires the beauty of it all.

There was none of that in his Faust. It was totally centered on the character, and totally involved with the opera, and it was clear he believed that Busoni had written a masterpiece to be put across as powerfully as possible to a Met audience. It was a pity he was not more strongly seconded by his director.
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Title Annotation:Ferruccio Busoni's 'Doktor Faust'
Author:Smith, Patrick J.
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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