The year 1816 saw the opening night of what one might call today an “offbeat” operatic version of the Faust legend. Titled simply “Faust,” the not very well constructed libretto by Joseph Karl Bernard stands as an example of the Sturm und Drang mindset of Germany at that time and has little enough to do with any popular version of the story.
Without going into much detail, we find Faust already “in charge” of his servant Mephistopheles at the start of the work and wanting to use his powers to do good. Needless to say, the Devil does not have that same agenda and uses two women to work Faust’s downfall. After a lot of Gothic castles and not very interesting love interest and intrigue, Faust is dragged to hell in the final moments of the opera. Now considering the state of the opera libretto back then, a good deal of the dialogue is quite good, although the story line is hackneyed and confusing.
What is of interest to any modern listener is the music. Every reference to Louis Spohr always leads one to think of the Mikado’s line about “Spohr and Beethoven and classical Monday pops”; but the man was quite instrumental in bringing German music out of the Italian influence and into the 19th century. Though I doubt if we will ever see this opera performed in this country, there is at least one recording of it you might find worthwhile on Capriccio label. Otherwise Spohr’s version will remain a rare curiosity.
Far more powerful dramatically and musically is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Doktor Faust,” which came in the first decade or so of the next century. Here the composer-librettist describes his work as “a poem for music in two prologues, an intermezzo and three principal scenes.” He wrote that he had in mind the episodic puppet shows on the Faust theme and claimed that an unrealistic spectacle is the best way to present a supernatural series of events.
The plot, such as it is, recalls Marlowe more than Goethe, with the Duchess of Parma playing a major part–and indeed having the only solo that approaches an aria in this work. Faust does die at the end, but there rises from the spot where a dead baby lies a “naked half grown youth with a flowering branch in his right hand”; after which an epilogue tells us that using the experiences of the past, we shall find heaven at last. A strange, powerful and brooding version that deserves a lot more attention than it gets on this side of the Atlantic.
To move even further from the Romantic movement and its respectful treatment of the Faust legend, I must mention here what some might call “a Faust for our times.” It is called (hold on to your earplugs) “Faust: die Rockoper.” Thankfully I am not required to review the recordings of this 1997 work, one in German and one in English, both of which might or might not be available over here. What Rudolf Volz did was simply to take chunks of dialogue from Goethe and set them verbatim to a heavy rock score. From what I can make of the photographs included with the CDs, I think Busoni would have approved of the staging.
Being a musical snob, I must confess that I cannot listen very long to the music, which I find utterly indistinguishable from song to song. And yet I do see some sort of poetic justice in having the Devil belt out his lines to a musical form that has made fortunes for countless performers who substitute volume, light displays and costumes for the ability to sing or play an instrument. Possibly if I was paid to sit through a performance, I might find it more tolerable. But again, this is my personal prejudice at full tilt. On the other hand, this might be a very good way to introduce the Faust story to recalcitrant youngsters who might very well accept it in this form. At any rate, a big production is at the time of this writing being planned in Munich for August 28, Goethe’s birthday. I hope he appreciates it!
For lack of room, I will stop here and devote my last article to possibly the best of the non-Goethe Faust versions. But if any of you out there know of any musical versions I have missed, please let me know.