Busoni: Doktor Faust

COMPOSERS: Busoni
LABELS: Arthaus
ALBUM TITLE: Busoni
WORKS: Doktor Faust
PERFORMER: Thomas Hampson, Gregory Kunde, Sandra Trattnigg, Reinaldo Macias, Günther Groissböck; Zurich Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Philippe Jordan; dir. Klaus Michael Grüber (Zurich, 2006)
CATALOGUE NO: Arthaus 101 283 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)
The greatest opera ever written about the practice of magic cries out for sumptuous medievalism and CGI, but is usually lucky if it ends up with a statuesque mishmash like this 2006 Zurich Opera House production. The industrial-shelving sets at least induce cavernous claustrophobia; Faust is at least allowed a magician’s robe over his sober business suit. The soldiery are quasi-medieval, the Parma court vaguely Elizabethan, the carousing students moustachioed 19th-century Prussian bravos with lurid duelling scars. Mephistopheles sports a shiny latex greatcoat, inhibiting for such a supple character. In the spirit-conjuring scene Busoni’s phosphorescent flames are abandoned for various bits of kitsch impedimenta. At the end the naked youth does not arise from Faust’s body (there is no body; he’s wandered off into the night) but strolls across backstage like a sleepwalking nudist.But there have been worse attempts, and the musical values here, in presumably the first DVD version of Busoni’s masterpiece, are high. Philippe Jordan directs his superb orchestra with a real sense of the score’s uncanny atmospheres, its aching lyricism and sombre rapture. Thomas Hampson, though often wooden in his acting, sings with immense feeling, investing Faust with most of his necessary weary nobility. Gregory Kunde, though not unearthly enough in voice, is a charismatic Mephistopheles who easily dominates the stage, while Sandra Trattnigg suggests some real character within the hapless Duchess of Parma. The production uses Philipp Jarnach’s completion, not Anthony Beaumont’s (a fact buried deep in the booklet), and thus the final scene – though effective in its own terms – is rather wide of Busoni’s intentions. Interviews with Hampson and Jordan are useful extras. A middling result, but one’s grateful even for that.

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