The Semperoper’s New Production of Doktor Faust: A True Company Achievement

GermanyGermany Busoni, Doktor Faust: Soloists, Dancers, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden (chorus master: Jörn Hinnerk Andresen), Säschsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Tomáš Netopil (conductor). Semperoper, Dresden, 19.3.2017. (MB)

(credit: Jochen Quast)
Busoni’s Doktor Faust (c) Jochen Quast

Doktor Faust – Lester Lynch
Wagner – Michael Eder
Mephistopheles, Night Watchman – Mark Le Brocq
Duke of Parma, Megäros – Michael König
Duchess of Parma – Manuela Uhl
Master of Ceremonies, Gravis – Magnus Piontek
Soldier (Girl’s Brother), Natural Scientist – Sebastian Wartig
Lieutenant, Beelzebuth – Jürgen Müller
Students from Krakow – Eric Stokloßa, Bernhard Hansky, Allen Boxer
Theologian, Levis – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Asmodus, Jurist – Stephan Klemm
Students from Wittenberg – Gerald Hupach, Khanyiso Gwenxane, Alexandros Stavrakakis, Aaron Pegram, Benjamin Glaubitz
Tenor Solo – Aaron Pegram
Shy Person – Friedrich Darge
Women’s Voices – Roxana Incontrera, Angela Liebold, Ewa Zeuner
Dancers – Juliane Bauer, Marianne Heubaum, Nicole Meier, Björn Helget, Dennis Dietrich, Dominik Strobl

Keith Warner (director)
Anja Kühnhold (assistant director)
Tilo Steffens (set designs)
Manuel Kolip (video)
Julia Müer (costumes)
John Bishop (lighting)
Karl Alfred Schreiner (choreography)
Juliane Schunke (dramaturgy)

One of the greatest twentieth-century operas, scandalously neglected, by a great twentieth-century composer at least as scandalously neglected as any other. We knew that already, of course, or many of us did, but no one could have been in any doubt after this excellent Dresden performance. Whatever minor cavils I might have – mostly concerning the edition used – they will not seriously detract from that. Doktor Faust received its premiere here at the Semperoper in 1925; this premiere of a new production by Keith Warner, conducted by Tomáš Netopil, proved a worthy successor.

Warner is a serious, thoughtful director: just the thing, one would have thought, for Busoni in general and Doktor Faust in particular, and so it turns out to be. Busoni insisted on a distinction – did not almost all interesting composers of his time? – between his own musical drama, its epic quality perhaps looking forward to that of Brecht and Weill (Busoni’s pupil), and Wagnerian music drama, which he considered incapable of greater intensification. That is clear enough, although on certain occasions, I found myself intrigued by aspects of the performance that brought Busoni closer to Wagner than one might have expected. In his Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, Busoni had declared that ‘the greater part of modern theatre music suffers from the mistake of seeking to repeat the scenes passing on the stage’. Its ‘proper mission’, rather, was to interpret ‘the soul-states of the persons represented’, which might actually stand in opposition to the action. Warner respects the particular qualities of Busoni’s work, not least that distinction between the role of words and music (much, perhaps ironically, as many directors would now also do with Wagner) and, quite rightly, has staging interpret them and mediate between thereby. The assembled company thereby offers a rebuke to Schoenberg’s frankly silly (wilful?) misunderstanding, quite some time later, of what Busoni had said:

I remember how Busoni was the first to claim that music in opera must not express what is expressed by the action. The opera is principally the product of four factors: the text, the music, the stage, and the singer. If one of these constituents is allowed to disregard what the others do, why should they not also enjoy the same privilege? For instance, the singer? Could not Monastatos ask Sarastro to dance a ‘pas de deux’ with Pamina? Or could not Lohengrin immediately after his arrival sell the swan to a butcher and start auctioning his gondola?

Not that such reading against the grain would necessarily be a bad thing, if done intelligently; far from it. However, it is not in play here.

What is in play is a staging that successfully navigates the interplay between such opposing and/or complementary features of Busoni’s work, to which we might add (again, not unlike Wagner, if with different means) tragedy and comedy, temporal and eternal, continuing and formally delineated, and not least, the ideal and the ‘merely existing’. As lain out in the (here unspoken) Prologue, the opera’s distinctly non-Goethian origins – like Wagner, Goethe is a figure from whom one might well decide to keep one’s distance here – in earlier puppet theatre remind us that there is more than one route to selling one’s soul and indeed to enlightenment. We have been led to think for ourselves, though, before the formal beginning of the performance, when we see a group of students (dancers, as we later discover, offering intelligently choreographed commentary and dramatic incitement) perusing their books, what they are reading or thinking (presumably) projected onto the curtain. And so, when the curtain rises during the ‘Symphonia’, we see hints at earlier historical attempts at solving the eternal riddles of existence, parading ancient philosophers and Christ (I think) amongst them, the twin roots of our (and Faust’s) Western tradition. He, not unreasonably, seems very much weighed down by it all at his desk, the bargain he strikes in some sense a response to a depression that is perhaps both personal and collective.

The fateful journey through which Mephistopheles takes our hero has elements again both of history and eternity. Indeed, even before the appearance of the final spirit, Faust has opened the book, Clavis astartis magica, to find a modern laptop. What might just seem a time-travelling gimmick, however, has a real dramatic point, increasingly so as the evening progresses. We place our faith in new methods of communication, new route to enlightenment, but do we thereby lose or diminish our critical faculties? Of course Faust would choose the sixth spirit, the one who travels as quickly as the thoughts of man (wonderfully double-edged!), just as we sit here writing and reading online. But what trickery is there in the Mephistophelian magic that enables the brutal murder of the girl’s (Gretchen’s) brother, the glittering seduction of the Duchess of Parma, and most glaringly here, the apparition of Helen of Troy? The action has taken us forward, through the age of Einstein to that of Warhol (amongst others featured). In the Wittenberg tavern, transposed to a transatlantic flower-power joint, Mephistopheles provides Faust with the requisite hallucinatory drug to smoke. The apparition then is real, in the quotidian sense, but is it real in the Hegelian, philosophical sense? Perhaps, then, as with Wagner again, the scene is very well set for the (relative, at least) victory of Schopenhauer in the final scene, Busoni at least as explicit here as his great predecessor in the crucial importance of the philosophy of the Will. Too much metaphysics, or not enough? The production is open enough to have us wonder.

I wondered, though, in that vein, whether we might have been better off with Philipp Jarnach’s edition, as premiered in Dresden all those years earlier, rather than the more recent version by Antony Beaumont. Beaumont’s version, incorporating material not used by Jarnach, is undoubtedly fascinating and closer to Busoni’s intentions. There remains, however, a nagging doubt, and I say this without wishing to posit a philistine distinction between ‘scholar’ and ‘composer’, that Jarnach’s punchier solution actually, in its relative infidelity (or, if you prefer, insufficiency), offers the better theatre. We should lose a good deal of the explicitly Schopenhauerian conclusion, yet the admittedly melodramatic final bars do their work so brilliantly that I missed them greatly. ‘Sollte diese Mann verunglückt sein?’ when spoken, offers an ending that is both teasingly ironic and recognisably tragic. Whether one wants that is, I suppose, largely a matter of taste. I had never heard the Beaumont ending in the theatre, and do not begrudge it. Might there, perhaps, though, be in the future some possibility of combining the best features of both? This is not, after all, Don Giovanni (about which more soon, also from Dresden).

The arguments are finely balanced, I accept. Ultimately, it was far more important that Netopil and the Staatskapelle Dresden offered so expert an account of the score. The orchestra’s strengths were just as strongly in evidence as if they had been playing a repertoire work by Wagner or Strauss: perhaps a little darker of hue than they would have been in the latter, again suggesting a greater, despite-himself, kinship between Wagner and Busoni than many of us might have expected, but also harking back to the great (despite the cuts) recording by Rafael Kubelík with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. (Kent Nagano in Lyon offers an account textually preferable and, on that account absolutely necessary, yet by dramatic comparison, a little more bloodless.) There was heft and there was light; there was mahogany and there was gold; and so on and so forth. Everything was well-paced, with excellent momentum. If there were a few occasions on which I thought the demonic sardonicism might have been played up a little more (notably the Flea Song), emphasising the closed nature of the form as well as its integration, then that stands at least on the verge of nitpicking.

Lester Lynch gave a fine portrayal of the title role, which went from strength to strength. It is by any standards a big part, and there were a few moments before the interval (during the Parma scene) when he sounded a little tired, if only relatively speaking, but as his anguish, weighed down by his conscience (personal and collective, as mentioned earlier?) came to the fore, there was no faulting the intelligent and ultimately deeply moving quality of his response. Mark Le Brocq’s Mephistopheles was very much in the mould of Kim Begley (for Nagano), a Loge on steroids, with a weird, unearthly tendency to camp that chilled rather than merely amused. I was a little surprised at some of the strange German heard from Manuela Uhl as the Duchess of Parma, but hers is a thankless role, and she generally did what she could with it. Aside from Michael Eder’s somewhat underpowered Wagner (no, not that Wagner), the rest of the cast was thoroughly impressive, not least collaboratively, proving much more than the sum of its parts. So too was the chorus, not just vocally, although it was little short of outstanding in that respect, but in stage business too. Warner, Netopil, and the assembled company presented us, then, with a true company achievement: just what opera should be. Whatever Schoenberg might have said…

Mark Berry

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