Doktor Faust

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Composer: Ferruccio Busoni

Libretto: Ferruccio Busoni

First produced: Dresden, 1925

Present Company: Zurich Opera 2006

Director: Klaus Michael Grüber

Sets: Eduardo Arroyo

Costumes: Eva Dessecker

Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann

Video Director: Felix Breisach

Orchestra: Zurich Opera House

Conductor: Philippe Jordan



Doktor Faust: Thomas Hampson

Mephistopheles: Gregory Kunde

Wagner: Günther Groissböck

The Duke/Brother/Soldier: Reinaldo Macias

Duchess: Sandra Trattnigg

Ein Leutnant: Martin Zysset



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 37.74 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (23~31 Mbps)

German DTS-HD MA 7.1

German PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: German, English, Italian, French & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 172 minutes

Arthaus Musik 2009



Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes & Makeup: A

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A-

Image: A

Audio: A

Extras Features: B

Recommendation: A



It is entirely possible that one could go through life never having heard a single piece of music by this composer with the familiar sounding name, or, in this case, a familiar sounding opera title, which, by the way is in German, not Italian, as you might infer. I feel confident, however, that after watching this performance of Doktor Faust one isn’t likely to forget it even though the music itself will likely continue to feel remote without repeated listenings.  The subject, it would appear, was a little too much for the composer since he did not, or could not, finish the work even after eight years at hard labor.  It was left incomplete at the time of his death. This performance, with certain cuts, is based on the one completed by Philipp Jarnach, Busoni’s pupil, and first performed a year later.



It could be said of Busoni that his eyes were too big for his stomach, musically speaking.  Indeed, his gargantuan Piano Concerto is considered one of the most difficult in the concert repertoire, to say nothing of the musical forces required to realize it on the stage.  Busoni brought the same appetite to the great myth of Faust generated by Goethe.

Busoni has his own musical vocabulary, and appears to owe little to any other composer or school, and though in Doktor Faust there is a passing resemblance to Berg’s Lulu his music in general seems to look backward as far as J.S. Bach rather than forward to the atonalists.  While I said earlier that his music for Doktor Faust is remote, I did not mean that it was off-putting but rather that it has not arias as such, and not so much set pieces as scenes.  The entire opera gives the impression of being through-composed, not adhering to any traditional or then current form, yet there is no doubt of its coherency.


He was a child prodigy, and met Liszt, Brahms and Anton Rubinstein when he was still a boy.  He grew up in Italy, but by his late twenties had settled in Berlin until the first world war, when he returned to Italy and later, Zurich.  After the war he returned to Berlin to teach and compose.  As a teacher he influenced a great number of notable composers, conductors and pianists including: Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse, Frederich Löwe, Egon Petri, Alexander Brailowsky, and the Dimitris Mitropoulos and Tiomkin.  He was a virtuoso pianist and wrote mostly for that instrument.  He completed three operas, though his most well known work in that form is this one that he left unfinished at his death at the age of 58.

I find it interesting that Busoni reverses the roles of Faust and Mephistopheles that occur in the Gounod and Boito operas where Faust is a baritone and Mephistopheles, a tenor.  Boito first composed his opera with a baritone Faust, but later revised him upwards.  While a deep voiced Mephistopheles has always made obvious sense to me, a tenor Faust was not nearly as convincing.  I am sympathetic to Busoni’s solution.  His baritone Faust is wearier and, at the same time, more authoritative and more pathetic.  His tenor Mephistopheles is a trickster, something like Batman’s Joker.  The overall impression is thereby darker, partly by contrast to tradition, partly by irony.




Busoni’s own libretto for Doktor Faust comprises two prologues, an intermezzo and three scenes. In this production the segment where the poet speaks to the audience in front of the curtain in omitted, and we move directly from the opening symphonia and chorus to the scene where Faust is at work in his laboratory at the university where he is Rector Magnificus.

Doktor Faust, like the character in Goethe, is a brilliant man in declining years.  In his lifetime he has amassed considerable knowledge, but instead of greeting his declining years as some sort of respite from labor, he feels cheated at all he has missed out on.  He is a user and a taker and dismissive of others’ demands on his time.  His pupil, Wagner, informs him of three “students” who wish to make him a present of a book with black magical powers.  The book allows Faust to summon spirits with the potential to grant him additional knowledge and experience.  One by one he dismisses them as not being the equal to what he already possesses - until the final spirit who calls himself “Mephistopheles.”


Faust makes a deal with this spirit that he be granted unlimited access to all experience, power, adulation, wealth and to “genius with all its torments.”  In exchange, Mephistopheles demands that Faust serve him for all eternity.  Faust is no dummy and realizes what is being asked of him.  He puts him off until Mephistopheles reminds him that what little time he has left will be made miserable and worse by creditors who will throw him in jail and the brother of a woman he wronged who wants to kill him.  Faust signs the contract in blood. (What’s a little eternity between friends, I always say.) 

An intermezzo reveals the brother of Gretchen, the woman Faust wronged.  He appears as a soldier asking God to avenge his sister.  Mephistopheles enters and arranges, with Faust’s approval, to have the brother killed.  Faust has now tasted murder.

Their first trip together brings them to the court of the duke and duchess of Parma on the day of their wedding, where Faust is announced as a remarkable magician.  He conjures great dramatis personae from the past, including Samson & Delilah and Salome & John the Baptist. Faust first dazzles, then seduces the Duchess.


In the following scene at a tavern, Faust reminisces about his affair with the Duchess when Mephistopheles arrives to tell him she has died and presents him with the infant she left him as a remembrance.  But the trickster is up to old stuff and the bundle turns out to be straw.  As compensation, Mephistopheles offers him a vision of perfect beauty, but Faust is unable to touch her, let alone consummate. Faust is becoming increasingly melancholic and receives word from the three students that his hours are numbered - a verdict he receives with some relief.

Mephistopheles appears as the Night Watchman declaring the Eleventh Hour.  Faust, alone, hopes to perform some deed that will exonerate him and grant salvation, but he cannot remember how to pray.  The Duchess reappears with the infant child suggesting a possible path.  Faust takes the child and, in an act of primal humanity, accepts it as his - something he has never done as matter of principle - and bequeaths him his own future life.  Faust walks off into the black to accept his fate. Mephistopheles appears and finds a youth in place of the child’s body.  He has the last word in a cypher that does him proud.



Critical Press:

The New York Times

The current recording uses the Jarnach score. “[Thomas Hampson possesses] all the physical and vocal energy one could wish for…..flourishes and ornaments leap out of his melodic lines….the gestures [are] also natural, his phrasing and pitch sure. Mr. Hampson, as his career justifiably grows, has preserved an unmannered charm.”

Gramophone, March 2008

Rickards finds that Hampson gets off to a poor start, "but audibly grows into the role" and Gregory Kunde steals the show as Mephistopheles. He strongly criticizes the use of Jarnach's (as opposed to Beaumont's) completion of the final scene as a misrepresentation of Busoni's intentions, and says it "stylistically jars the moment it starts." He also objects to the omission of the Students' serenade to Wagner at the beginning of the final scene. "Wagner's replacement of Faust as Rector is included in the sung text and meaningless without its representation onstage. Musically, the cut section provides vital contrast between the defiance of the second scene's close and the denouement." - Guy Rickards



I agree with Rickards about Hampson’s wobbly start, but only briefly: there is a lack of support from time to time that contrasts with his intelligent, passionate reading.  The difficulty is short lived; Hampson finds his voice by the end of the first scene and from there complements Gregory Kunde’s self-amused Mephistopheles wonderfully.  Whomever is singing or on camera, he is the star - which is how it should be for two such iconic forces of nature.

Stage Director Klaus Michael Grüber aided by Set Designer Eduardo Arroyo, Costume Designer Eva Dessecker, and Lighting Director Jürgen Hoffmann paint the most fantastical images, especially the court of Parma with its deep cobalt blue light and childlike costumes.  Video Director Felix Breisach avoids rapid cutting that would dispel the mood.  In the scene where the Duchess confesses her infatuation for Faust, she appears deep into the stage, alone; Breisach’s camera views the scene in the widest shot possible, while she is partially hidden behind the set.  As she walks slowly across and toward the front of the stage, the camera zooms (hardly the right word, but what can I do) over a four-minute uninterrupted cut to a telling close-up.


Earlier, when Faust first enters the court, Hampson appears to fix his attention directly into the camera for what seems an eternity - the feeling he projects of command is most compelling.  My one complaint about the video direction is that the camera spends too long peering at music stands during the prelude and intermezzi.  These are boring and tedious frames that are only somewhat relieved with close-ups of the players.


Arthaus Musik can deliver some razor sharp images even at relatively low bit rates, but here, with the help of less compression than usual (bit rates in the mid to high 20s Mbps) the picture is especially gorgeous: detail, clarity, coherence, contrast control at both ends (shadows and highlights) without transfer artifacts.  Fear not the 1080i resolution: this is an impressive image, rivaling anything you’ve seen at 1080p.  (N.B. I assume that the shimmer on Hampson’s wig and other artifacts noted on DVDTalk by the inestimable Jeffrey Kaufman are the result of that reviewer’s video processor being unable to properly deal with the deinterlacing required. My OPPO BDP-95 had no such difficulty.)




I confess the idea of a 7.1 audio mix for a live opera production boggles the mind.  My mind, anyhow.  But that’s because I am so married to the idea that the viewer’s perspective should be from somewhere in the audience.  The audio mix here, whether heard in 7.1 or folded by your playback system to 5.1 in the event you don’t have the full monty, has little relation to what we see.  Except for the stage voices, which are more recessed, and in this way more realistic than usual, everything else is immersive.  In other operas, that would apply only to the orchestra, but here we have various offstage choruses and spirit soloists that emerge in unique aural domains.  It’s quite the experience!

The Zurich Opera House Orchestra led by Philippe Jordan plays as if they’ve known this music all their lives.  Whether in the tricky chamberish bits or the more traditional dancelike sequences or the occasional sudden tuttis, they play magnificently.  The 2.0 mix seems at first impression the more dynamic, or at least the more clarifying, and it offers a more even balance between stage and pit, but we soon hear how contained it is, especially in the tuttis which sound jaw-droppingly glorious in the surround mix.  I don’t think I have ever heard brass and low instruments with such authority, richness and power in an opera video recording.




The multi-language 34-page booklet includes an essay by Beate Breidenbach: This Work is to be My Masterpiece which, as you would expect, examines the composer and the history of this unfinished near-masterpiece.  The disc includes two separate interviews, one with the conductor Phillippe Jordan, and the other with Thomas Hampson.  Hampson focuses on his character, his singing, and what he feels the opera is about at its core.  Jordan is more interested in the musical language and challenges of staging and performance.  Both interviews are presented upscaled from SD.


High marks indeed for all concerned: image and sound quality, bonus features, the opera, its staging and performance. Not to be missed, and very much worth repeated viewings.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

July 19, 2012

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