FERRUCCIO BUSONI'S "Doktor Faust" has been a cause cbre since
the composer died in 1924, some 11 manuscript pages shy of
completing what is now recognized as his masterpiece.
After its American concert premiere in 1964, with Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, we have had to wait until now
for a staged production, and it is the New York City Opera we must
thank - albeit in qualified fashion - for finally giving us
Busoni's unusual opera.
I say qualified because artistic director Christopher Keene has
once again marshaled the forces of his company to deliver a musical
triumph in a uniquely demanding work only to be seriously let down
by his stage director - in this case, Frank Corsaro.
Busoni, who owned one of the great collections of Faust
literature, turned to a combination of an old German puppet play
and Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" rather than Goethe.
Busoni removed the Christian overtones, and made the alchemist
and doctor a sorcerer in search of knowledge at whatever cost, even
a pact with the devil. Only when nearing an accursed death would he
admit his mistakes, but state that his "heir" would continue where
he broke off, purified, as it were, of Faust's errors. Gretchen
(a.k.a. Marguerite) never appears in Busoni's Faust opera (though
her vengeful brother does). Rather, it is the Duchess of Parma who
Busoni's musical muse was unique - a curious mixture of
Italianate passion and Germanic sobriety, reflecting his own
Italian-German heritage. The massive orchestra is used for music
that is now cataclysmic, now gossamer, now Straussian in its
richness, now Bachian in its leanness and formality. The effects
can be astonishing - be it the Duchess of Parma's trancelike
meditation on Faust, or the Doctor's own final nearly cosmic words
before resigning himself to death.
Keene conjured sounds out of the New York City Opera Orchestra
that its patrons have simply not heard in years - rich, empassioned
playing from all involved. The cast performed commendably, with
William Stone earning particular honors in the grueling title role,
and Robert Brubaker revealed a tenor of exceptional potency and
luster in the thankless role of the Soldier. Eva Zseller coped well
with the excruciatingly high-lying part of the Duchess of Parma.
The role of Mephistopheles is also treacherously high, and tenor
Michael Rees Davis made a game attempt at making it sound
As for the production, Mr. Corsaro revived his scrims and filmed
projections approach that worked so well 20 years ago, and should
have worked stunningly for a tale of magic and sorcery. Rather, it
all seemed a tired patchwork quilt of gestures and gimmicks he used
to better effect many years ago, without the insights that made the
best of his older work so exciting. By ignoring most of Busoni's
stage directions, he denied audiences a chance to judge the opera
on its own terms as a work of theater.
`Tales of Hoffmann'
At the Metropolitan Opera, opening night was devoted to a
revival of the company's popular production of Offenbach's "Les
Contes d'Hoffmann" ("The Tales of Hoffmann"), this time with a
difference. Offenbach died four months before the premiere of his
masterpiece. Had he lived, he would have seriously reworked the
opera. Instead, others did it for him, to disastrous effect. This
year, the Met is incorporating big chunks of original Offenbach
from the Fritz Oeser critical edition.
The story unfolds in a different order: The doll Olympia is now
followed by the singer Antonia rather than the courtesan Giulietta.
Also, the role of the Muse is restored: She comes to Hoffmann in
the guise of his friend Nicklausse, so that he can be led back to
his love of writing and away from his more earthy desires. The
original version was also written with one singer assuming the
roles of Hoffmann's various loves, rather than assigning them to
four artists. …