Busoni Doktor Faust Meister Dynamic 37998 DVD

Feruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Doktor Faust (1924)
Opera in three Acts with two Prologues and an Intermezzo
Libretto by the composer. Completed by Philipp Jarnach, 1925
Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Doktor Faust
Daniel Brenna (tenor), Mephistopheles
Wilhelm Schwinghammer (bass), Wagner and Master of Ceremonies
Joseph Dahdah (tenor), Soldier, Duke of Parma
Olga Bezsmertna (soprano), Duchess of Parma
Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, 14 February 2023, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence
Dynamic 37998 DVD [2 discs: 166]

Busoni’s Doktor Faust is his last and greatest work, and many of his previous works were studies for it and were incorporated into the final score. The story is based, not on Goethe but on the original sixteenth century puppet play, with some influences from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. The traditional feature of a pact with the devil, here Mephistopheles, is retained, with the gift of a magic book. The tragedy of Gretchen is only referred to and the main action concerns Faust’s exploits at the court of Parma, at which Faust summons apparitions and seduces the Duchess. After the orchestral Sarabande there is a scene at a tavern in Wittenberg, the cradle of the Protestant reformation. There is a brawl between Catholic and Protestant students. Mephistopheles announces the Duchess’s death, apparently throws down her newborn child and transforms it into a bundle of straw, which he sets alight. He evokes Helen of Troy for Faust. The Kraków students return to ask Faust for the return of the magic book and foretell his death.

In the final scene, Wagner has been appointed rector of the university and the students reappear to demand the return of their book, which Faust has destroyed. Faust gives alms to a poor beggar in whom he recognizes the Duchess. Mephistopheles appears as a night watchman. She hands him her dead child. Faust would attend church but is barred by the figure of the Soldier. Christ on the crucifix turns into Helen. Faust transforms his life force into the child through magic. A young man emerges. Mephistopheles takes away Faust’s body.

This work has a haunting and unmistakeable atmosphere, always evocative and often sinister – not surprisingly, given its subject. But Busoni did not live to complete his opera. The Helen scene and the ending were left unfinished. His pupil Philipp Jarnach provided a stopgap completion which was used for many years. However, in 1982 the conductor and Busoni expert Antony Beaumont found Busoni’s plan for the missing scenes, which drew on some of his existing works, and so was able to reconstruct them. It is unfortunate that this production continues to use the Jarnach ending.

After the opening Symphonia we have five minutes of Busoni’s spoken prologue, declaimed against a static background of a building façade. I do not think Busoni intended this to be used in performances and it certainly kills the tension.

We then see Faust’s booklined study, vividly created through projections, and some dozen identically dressed men sitting in a line of chairs. One of these turns out to be Wagner, Faust’s assistant, and another Faust himself. Three of the others become the students from Kraków who bring Faust a magic book – a grimoire – while the others are the spirits whom he summons using the book: Gravis, Levis and so on, ending with Mephistopheles. They are all in modern dress.

In the Intermezzo which follows, we are supposed to be in a church. Mysterious organ music plays and the Soldier, Gretchen’s brother, is praying for justice for her and vengeance on Faust. Mephistopheles comes in dressed as a friar, asks the soldier to make his confession and then summons other soldiers to shoot him. Only, in this production the scene is not set in a church but in a hospital ward, Mephistopheles retains his suit and instead of soldiers we have health workers. This contradicts the libretto and makes nonsense of the scene. It is pointless to ask why.

In the Parma scene, the ladies of the court are in the fashions of the 1920s, but all are in black or grey. Faust summons his apparitions by playing a piano and they appear projected onto a wall. A humanoid figure with horns and a hirsute lower half, possibly a satyr, wanders through this scene and the next. I do not know what or who this is supposed to be.

In the tavern scene, everyone is sitting in rows except for a few leaders who stand at the back. The brawl, with the Catholic and Protestant students singing against each other, is a tame affair with no movement on stage. The episode with the Duchess, the appearance of Helen and the return of the students are fumbled.

The last scene cuts a good deal, omitting Wagner and the students, and leaves out the soul transference action and the emergent young man.

Although the stage action is perverse and sometimes nonsensical, the lighting is brilliantly imaginative, indeed sometimes too much so, with flames flooding the stage on occasion. The cast is good. Dietrich Henschel is the leading Faust in this work for our time and has recorded it already in Nagano’s excellent audio version. Daniel Brenna is an imperturbable Mephistopheles, who can just about manage the extremely high tessitura Busoni demands. Wilhelm Schwinhammer doubles the role of Wagner and Master of Ceremonies in Parma and is excellent in both. Josph Dahdah is a burly soldier and an effete Duke of Parma. Olga Bezsmertna is rather tremulous as the Duchess, the only female role outside the chorus. The chorus itself is adequate as both courtiers in Parma and students, though in the latter scene hampered by the static staging.

The orchestral playing is in general disappointing. The opening Symphonia is disheartening, dull, sludgy and shapeless. Thereafter, things improve somewhat and the Cortège at the beginning of the Parma scene is quite well done. However, Cornelius Meister does not seem to understand the idiom, so, for example, the strange passage introducing the students (an orchestral version of Busoni’s Sonatina Seconda) and the Sarabande are too fast and devoid of mystery. Indeed, he does not seem able to produce the characteristic Busoni sound, which, though basically Germanic, should have more bite in the treble and rhythmic precision than he gives it. The cut in the final scene is deplorable, as is the choice of the Jarnach rather than the Beaumont ending. The recording is adequate.

In short, good singing and lighting do not outweigh poor orchestral playing and a perverse staging. This is a disappointing issue. There is at least one other DVD, with Thomas Hampson in the title role, which has attracted some praise. It also uses the Jarnach ending. On audio, Nagano’s version offers both the Jarnach and the Beaumont endings and has a far better sense of Busoni’s style.

Stephen Barber

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Other cast members
Florian Stern (tenor), Lieutenant
Marcell Bakonyi (bass), Law student and Levis
Martin Piskorski (tenor), Marian Pop (baritone), Lukas Konieczny (bass), students from Krakow
Dominic Barberi (bass), Theologian and Gravis
Zachary Wilson (baritone), Scientist and Asmodus
Franz Gürtelschmied (tenor), Student and Beelzebub
Ewandro Stenzowski (tenor), Megaros

Production Details

Davide Livermore, Director
Diego Mingolia, Assistant Director,
Giò Forma, Set Designer
Mariana Fracasso, Costume Designer
Fiammetta Baldiserri, Light Designer

Video details
Colour – NTSC; Sound format: Dolby Digital 5.1 PCM 2.0 Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Sung in German; Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Korean, Japanese