Ferruccio Busoni may not be a household name to even lovers of classical music, but if I said there's a more or less direct line from Busoni to Frank Zappa, perhaps that might pique enough interest to get more people, especially the younger folk, to check out his complex and innovative music, fully on display on this new BD of Doktor Faust, the opera he toiled on for years up until his death, leaving it sadly unfinished. Luckily Busoni's student Philipp Jarnach filled in the missing scenes (in the mid-1980s, Anthony Beaumont discovered several original Busoni sketches for Faust material that had heretofore been thought lost, and he did another reconstruction, but this BD uses the Jarnach version). Busoni paved the way for such revolutionary musical thinkers as Edgard Varese and Harry Partch, hence the through line to Zappa (Busoni was one of the first to argue for an octave split into more than 12 equal divisions). A quiet revolutionary in his own way, Busoni still worked within a basically tonal system while pushing the boundaries, albeit completely differently than Wagner and Strauss, who twisted and transmogrified chordal structures, typically dominant sevenths, until tonality was, to coin an Einsteinian phrase, relative.
You'll notice Busoni's peculiarly fascinating methods right off the bat in Faust's orchestral prelude. A repeated minor third figure occurs almost as an ostinato, and "trained" ears will probably hear it as the fifth and third of a major triad. And yet Busoni has this interval floating above a wash of massed tonalities that completely alters the way most astute listeners would normally perceive it, making it fundamentally ambiguous and strangely diaphanous--about as diametrically opposed to the foundational solidity a major triad usually imparts. That ambiguity plays perfectly into Faust's themes of temptation, power and ultimate redemption, helping to musically illuminate the twisted soul that inhabits its lead character.
Busoni had been fascinated with the Faust legend since his early childhood, but like a lot of artists, felt initimidated by the overwhelming mastery of Goethe's version. It took the composer years to divorce himself from Goethe's vision and craft one that contains, obviously, several of the same elements while positing it all in a magical-fantasy environment that is positively Felliniesque, to use a film comparison. Once Mephistopheles has possession of Faust's soul, the "good" Doktor embarks on a journey of hallucinogenic proportions, leading, of course, to his ultimate demise, but leaving (if I may be permitted a short detour into 1960s pop music for a moment) "one child born to carry on."
Doktor Faust is unusually structured. Highly episodic, the opera makes incredible demands of its eponymous baritone, who pretty much has the stage to himself for over a half an hour at the top of the piece. American superstar Thomas Hampson is in complete control in this role, his mighty voice roaring through Busoni's declarative melodies. That's not "fake" sweat that's popping out all over Hampson by the time Mephistopheles (Gregory Kunde) makes his entrance--it's no doubt perspiration caused by the sheer physical effort it takes to sing this valiantly nonstop with nary a break. It's an amazing opening gambit, one that Busoni must have known would tax even prodigiously talented professionals, but Hampson, despite losing a little of his personal water table, does magnificent work.
Klaus Michael Gruber stage directs this version with a fair degree of visual audacity. The curtain opens on a gigantic scrim of Faust's lab, filled from floor to flies with bottles and other paraphernalia of the alchemist's trade. There are brilliant, if patently bizarre, little touches throughout this production which help lend it its hallucinatory air. The three students who deliver the book of black magic to Faust are all painted different colors, even as they wear perfectly nice suits and fedoras. The Parma Court scene is like the Loveland sequence of Sondheim's Follies seen through a psilocybin haze. Later, in the tavern scene, the students all bear weird slashes and painted faces. When Faust has his vision of Helen of Troy, she's a diaphanous blue nude who seems cloaked in Saran Wrap. The effect is to make Faust's journey one akin to Orpheus' in Tartarus--Faust is literally going through hell to finally achieve something close to redemption.
While Kunde sings magnificently and has a certain menace as Mephistopheles, the one design and directorial misstep is in his costuming and characterization. Clad in a black cape, with a weird glove containing what looks like a plastic red finger, Kunde comes off at times as Count Dracula playing a used car salesman. Now I'm sure some of you would aver that a used car salesman is about as close as most of us come to dealing with the Devil in real life, but in this context it deflates the intensity that is needed for Lucifer's interactions with his captive Doctor.
This is a magnificently sung and played Faust by all accounts. Busoni had a special relationship with Zurich, and the beautiful Swiss city repays that history in full with this sweeping production conducted by Philippe Jordan. Television director Felix Breisach does a mostly excellent job of focusing attention where it needs to be, though he occasionally frames his wide shots too wide, allowing the top of the proscenium, where the German supertitles for the live audience are projected, to be seen.
Overall, though, this is an eye-popping production full of some of the most expressive music written in the early 20th century. Faust remains such a potent iconic figure for many reasons, not the least of which many of us wonder if society at large has sold its soul to the Devil, considering the straits we often find ourselves in. Busoni's version gives us hope that, though damned to hell as we may well be, there's redemption out there, waiting to be found. It's a message that seems especially reverberant in these times.