Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thomas Hampson IS Doktor Faust

Phew, what an exhausting, numbing, emotional experience this was. The production is not without problems, but Hampson’s performance more than compensates for anything that might hinder one’s enjoyment and appreciation for this reading. This may in fact be the finest work I’ve seen from him - and knowing his propensity for analyzing and reading between the lines, Busoni’s enigmatic, difficult task put out before him is precisely the type of challenge Hampson seems to revel in. He is intense, his world weary, exhausted of life beginning morphing into this superhuman persona that burns himself out trying to achieve Mephistophele’s challenge: “to make eternal the fulfillment of every wish and every suffering.” It’s exhausting just to think about! Busoni’s uncompleted opera shows everywhere a brilliant mind grappling with larger “Faustian” ideas - and a seeming frustration as how best to represent them in a piece conceived for a stage drama. The resulting work is, of course, episodic in nature without the clear linear direction and storyline we are accustomed to in “standard” opera.

Klaus Michael Grüber’s production for Zurich seems intent to maximize that episodic nature and the attempt to flow the acts together with a cinematic liquidity makes the “choppiness” (for lack of better word) of the work all the more noticeable. The enormous stage design seemed to me a blending of a hyper-realism mixed with the symbolic. To that end, watching this I was reminded (more than once) of the great silent movies, and the larger-than-life performances, odd costumings (for all but Faust and Mephistpheles) all enhance that feeling. At the same time, Grüber’s staging has a church pageant feel to it, almost enhancing the static qualities of the opera Mr. Hampson appears to be one of those always good looking fellows whose looks actually seem to only improve with age and here, even exhausted and greasyhaired, he looks terrific. The voice, always attractive is gorgeous in this incredibly difficult music and even when the music threatens to overwhelm him he is never less than compelling - giving everything he has. The last half hour of this piece is my favorite as it’s almost entirely Faust in this Wagnerian length soliloquy of ineffable beauty and power. Hampson is at his absolute zenith here - watching him grapple with all of the ideas presented him, the reality he alone cannot attain what he had set out to, the realization of his mortality - all set to Busoni’s stunning score - I was overwhelmed by it, completely undone.

I know many find this work difficult going, but I really believe even if one doesn’t care particularly for most of the opera, this scene alone is worth the price of the set. Hampson is THAT amazing here.
Gregory Kunde has the unenviable task of singing the other impossible role, Mephistopheles. The tessitura alone is a killer, but Kunde makes it all work and is often thrilling vocally, while physically his devil comes off as wry and deadpan. The combination works wonderfully.

The lovely Sandra Trattnigg is the Duchess of Parma and ably sings her difficult aria more than adequately . . . admirably, even, but while she has an attractive voice the role really isn’t a great one and she (whether directed or on her own) doesn’t make quite the meal out of it that I hoped she might. Some of the costumes are outlandish and downright weird, which, I’m guess serves to heighten the difference between the Devil, Faust and everyone else in the world, but some of them were (to me) fairly ghastly.

Philippe Jordan looks like he should be starring in movies rather than conducting operas, but he does a (mostly) superb job with the Zurich forces and nearly all of the music comes across magnificently. The one disappointment I had was in the long Symphonic Intermezzo (which begins the 2nd disc). It is dispatched with precision, attention to detail and amazing dynamics, but it felt “soulless” to me. There was too much of a detached quality that got under my skin as I want this intense, mostly soft music to “burn” and it did just about the opposite here. This was difficult for me to understand (but clearly an artistic choice . . . duh) as the rest of the score has that “burning” that Busoni has infused it with. Busoni’s opera is, as Hampson refers to it a complete “masterpiece.”

Despite its episodic nature - perhaps because of it - one can experience the ideas of Faust better than in any of the other Faustian operas. In a few hours his Doktor Faust encompasses far more of those ideas than could possibly be gleaned than were one able to spend the same amount of time with the sources from which it is derived. It seems almost as if told in a dream-like state, where anything at all is possible with little to no regard for the banalities of realism. Musically, Busoni embraces so many styles - there is Bach, Beethoven and Schumann aplenty in the score.

During one section of the great final monologue I always feel the presence of Poulenc ’“Dialogues of the Carmelites” (even though that work came much later). It is a glorious score wed to a a sometimes difficult to grasp libretto, but I don’t necessarily consider that a flaw, but rather more of a challenge to the listener. This is one tough bird of an opera. Busoni almost guaranteed his opera would be difficult on all accounts: to cast, to interpret, and to sit through. Despite a mostly ear ravishing score, it’s not one to “sit back and enjoy,” like some other works, but this production - musically and theatrically, yields mighty rewards.

There is a marvelous 26 minute interview with Hampson and the Zurich Opera House dramaturg, which is a “must see.” Hampson (speaking, thinking and gesturing in perfect German) is witty, intellectual without being “poofy” about it - it’s all “real” to him and his energy is as engaging off stage as on.

In one hilarious section he mentions the difficulty of the piece which he declares “unsingable” - how nearly impossible it is and how one of his first arias - there is all of this difficult coloratura but “the orchestration . . . is massive, everyone’s sawing away, thumping and tooting (he makes all manner of comic physical gestures here) while the conductor is (imitates a conductor trying to control the orchestra) and there above the vocal line it’s marked ‘sotto voce!’ . . . after a day and a half of this my lyric voice started wobbling in this ‘screamed version . . . ” Hampson as comedian works too!


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