Music and libretto by FerruccioBusoni. Production by Peter Mussbach. WithKatarinaDalayman, Robert Brubaker, DavidKuebler and Thomas Hampson. MetropolitanOperaOrchestraand Chorus conducted byPhilippeAuguin. Attended Monday’s opening.Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center. Repeated onFriday, Tuesdayand Jan. 20, 25 and 29.
By Justin Davidson
ERRUCCIO BUSONI’S opera“Doktor Faust” is deeply re-spected and rarely seen. Seven-teen years in gestation and stillincomplete at the composer’sdeath in 1924, an obsessive visionary’smagnum opus finally emerged ontothe stage of the Metropolitan OperaMonday night, in a production thatseemed sure to send the work scuttlingback into the shadows.Busoni’s libretto, based not on Goet-he but on 16th-Century puppet plays,is grimly high-minded, his music bela-bored to the point of rigor mortis. Theopera opens with more than an hour of throat-clearing — two prologues andan intermezzo before the first corescene (not counting a spoken introduc-tion that Busoni wrote and the Metomitted). It then slouches reluctantlytoward midnight, postponing the finalcurtain with oblique soliloquies andslow-motion processions. A few epi-sodes might potentially come alive— the contrapuntal melee betweendrunken Protestant and Catholic stu-dents and the humorously stately cor-tege that ushers the Duke and Duch-ess of Parma toward a blighted wed-ding day.New York City Opera staged thismurderously difficult work with a cer-tain ramshackle nobility and breath-less flair in 1992, raising hopes that alittle more money and a surer hand onthe podium might really make it shine.The Met has spared no expense in stul-tifying the work, assiduously obscur-ing most of whatever qualities thescore has.Director Peter Mussbach introducedhimself to the company with a wintry,slag-colored production first seen inSalzburg in 1999. Mussbach interprets“Doktor Faust” as a hallucination,which allows him to conjure up a surre-alistic vision that doesn’t square withthe score’s academic solidity. Faustand Mephistopheles wander stifflythrough a black-and-white fantasy-land dressed in long, gray coats andmatching fedoras. Every so often, thestage spews smoke, snow or fire. Onone painted flat, a dramatically fore-shortened room is carpeted in fluffyclouds, on another, a nighttime land-scape resembles an enlarged computerchip. Occasionally, a note of uninten-tional realism intrudes: The curtaincomes up on graying piles of snow thatlook exactly like those currently decay-ing on the sidewalks of New York,which undercuts the dreaminess.When James Levine pulled out of conducting “Doktor Faust,” pleadingsciatica, the opera lost the man whobrought it to the Met and who mighthave made a more powerful case forthe score. Philippe Auguin bravelyagreed to make his company debutunder these inauspicious circumstanc-es, took over rehearsals with only afew weeks’notice and promptly causedthe first performance to sink intoquicksand. Busoni’s frequently stark,nocturnal orchestration blurred into amass of soft, velour sound. Intentional-ly or not, Auguin applied Mussbach’sdream concept to the music, indulgingin somnolent tempos and smudgingthe composer’s exacting counterpoint.Undeterred, Thomas Hampson sangthe title role with his usual ac-tion-hero bearing, but his perfor-mance, like Busoni’s music, wound upsounding lethally studied. Faust is al-ternately defeated and manicallyself-satisfied, but Hampson neverabandoned his diplomatic equipoise.Robert Brubaker, his voice gaunt andangular, was more convincingly Me-phistophelian, but the part’s gruelingdemands got to him, and he spent abad 10 minutes croaking.Katarina Dalayman took the opera’sonly female part — the Duchess of Parma — and brought a welcome re-spite from so much baritonal sobriety,mooning over the unlovable Faust.The Met’s intrepid chorus made mostof its (sometimes inaudible) contribu-tions from offstage, but when it materi-alized, it did so with customarygusto.
A Surrealistic ViewOf One Man’s Hell
Photo by Winnie Klotz / Metropolitan Opera
Thomas Hampson is “Doktor Faust” at the Met’s production at Lincoln Center.
A R T S & E N T E R T A I N M E N T
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