While Berlioz based his La Damnation de Faust (1846) on the seminal work of Goethe, Ferrucio Busoni went back to the earlier German puppet plays as the source for his Doktor Faust (1924). The fundamental theme remains — man’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge, the price for which is his soul. The two operas are separated by three-quarters of a century and they both use many of the same plot elements, but Busoni surely has moved to a 20th century viewpoint and a sound very different from Berlioz’ 19th century romanticism.
This co-production of San Francisco Opera and Staatsoper Stuttgart is set in a rather coldwarehouse space, fluorescent lit, graffiti scarred, paint peeling. Faust’s living/working area is at the center; a space that becomes a chapel is at stage-left, glass walls at stage right are altered with lighting and accessories for other effects.
The music ranges from dissonant atonality to the highly lyrical, following the thoughts and moods of the characters as well as plot developments. Three students from Krakow bring Faust a book of the occult; they remind him of his own youthful hopes. But this is a bitter, angry, defeated, vengeful Faust, quite different from the more passively defeated Faust of Berlioz or the aging, loveless Faust of Gounod.
With the powers of the magical book, Faust calls upon Lucifer. Five demons respond in turn, each offering a greater metaphor for speed. Faust rejects them all, but the sixth, Mephistopheles, claims the speed of human thought and this satisfies him. These musical passages rise from bass to high tenor and grow in intensity. When Mephistopheles appears, ironically, he is a scruffy old man carrying a shopping bag.
Faust makes his broadly inclusive demands of Mephistopheles, to which Mephistopheles agrees, providing Faust agrees to serve him forever. Faust backs off — "the human spirit is greater than Hell’s offerings." But Mephistopheles reminds Faust that his creditors are after him and that the brother of a girl he seduced is after him as well. So this Faust is as much motivated by his need to get out of a tight spot as he is by his desire for superhuman powers. While other Fausts seem to have lost their spiritual way, this Faust, in a distinctly 20th century mode, seems more dragged down by day-to-day realities. He says, as he signs the pact, "Where is my will? my pride?" His concern is more psychological than spiritual.
The subsequent appearance and murder of the aggrieved brother, dressed in the armor of a crusader, and the grand courtiers of the Duke and Duchess of Parma dressed in formal evening wear and examining cases of jewels, injects a mounting sense of the surreal and the dreamlike. (Faust actually appears to be asleep in his bed as parts of the action develop.) Equally 20th century is Faust’s response to the cry of the courtiers for him to "Reveal your art!" — he moons them.
It is the Duke and Duchess’ wedding night, but the Duchess is fascinated by Faust, sings rapturously of her love for him, and climbs into his bed. Later, Mephistopheles informs Faust of the Duchess’ death and delivers to him their dead child. Faust’s anguish and guilt crescendos through the end of the opera. when, unable to pray, he collapses. "Has this man had an accident?" asks the night watchman in the ironic closing line.
Busoni died before completing the opera; rather than use one of the subsequently fabricated endings, this production ends there, where Busoni left off. And, indeed, the case has been made, the legend retold in starkly dramatic, contemporary terms. Maestro Donald Runnicles finds structural logic in the diversities of this unique score, leading his orchestra and an accomplished cast of singing actors through a cumulatively powerful, emotionally draining performance.