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The Sunday Opera: Ferruccio Busoni's "Doktor Faust"

The legend surrounding “Faust” has seen many settings and adaptations over the years including two ballets, 26 classical orchestral works, songs, and oratorios, and some 22 operas, and we’re tuning to one of them by Ferruccio Busoni on this week’s Sunday Opera (6/23 3:00 p.m.). 

Busoni began “Doktor Faust” in 1916 fully intending it to be his masterpiece, however, by the time of his death in 1924, the opera remained unfinished. One of his pupils, Philipp Jamach, completed the opera for it’s world premier in Dresden in May of 1925. It would eventually be completed a second time in 1982 by Antony Beaumont who used sketches by Busoni that were once thought lost. Busoni wrote the libretto for the opera which is quite a bit different from Gounod’s “Faust” which seems to be more often performed. 

The Metropolitan Opera has mounted the opera one time, for six performances in 2001 in a production starring Thomas Hampson. 

The format of the opera is rather strange as it begins and ends with a spoken role where the poet (Dietrich Fischer-Deskau) explains why he’s abandoned Merlin and Don Juan as subjects for the opera in favor of Faust. This is followed by two Prologues, an Intermezzo, and three scenes with another intermezzo between scenes 1 & 2. 

In the first prologue, Faust (Dietrich Henschel) is visited by three students from Krakow who have come to give Faust a book on black magic. After they leave, his pupil Wagner (Markus Hollop), explains that he saw no one enter or leave the room. 

The second prologue features Faust using the book and summoning spirits and choosing Mephistopheles (Kim Begley) to be his servant on earth, and he finds out he’ll have to serve Mephistopheles after his death. Mephistopheles shows his worth by making the creditors and enemies at the door fall dead. As an offstage chorus sings an Easter “Credo,” Faust sings the pact and damns his soul in the process. 

During the intermezzo, the soldier brother (Detlef Roth) of a maiden named Gretchen swears revenge on Faust because Faust destroyed his sister’s honor, but once again, Mephistopheles steps in to ensure that the soldier is killed. 

Through the course of the opera, Faust seduces the Duchess of Parma (Eva Jenis) on her wedding day, and she runs away with Faust while Mephistopheles makes sure that the Duke (Torsten Kerl) doesn’t follow them.

Faust eventually loses everything and is visited by the duchess who is now a beggar who hands him the body of the child she and Faust conceived, and with a supreme effort, Faust steps into a magic circle with the child and transfers his lifeforce to the child and dies. 

Is there more? Of course there is, but you’ll just have to tune in to find what else Busoni’s Faust gets up to. 

The soloists are joined by the choruses of the Lyon National Opera and the Grand Theatre of Geneva. The National Opera Orchestra of Lyon is conducted by Kent Nagano. 

We’ll finish our time together with more music of Busoni including his wonderful Turandot Suite as well as one of his songs, Bin ein faherender (I Am a Young Wayfarer).

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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