Is this a great opera? Yes. Is there another performance of it currently available on DVD? Well then, unless this performance of the work is mediocre or poor, purchase of it would seem necessary to those who really take opera from the early-20th century seriously. Indeed. But what is offered here is far above mediocre. In fact, Thomas Hampson's performance is powerful and mesmerizing, and the rest of the cast is never less than adequate. Gregory Kunde is also quite impressive in his singing of the notoriously difficult role of Mephistopheles, as is Sandra Trattnigg as the Duchess of Parma.
Conductor Philippe Jordan seems always to select the appropriate tempo and draws fine playing from the Zürich players. Some viewers may quibble with some of the silly-looking costumes (take a look at the Duchess's, which could hide elephant-sized love handles), but the sets are effective in their modernistic appearance and mostly everything else here is fine, including the camera work and sound reproduction. As those familiar with this Busoni opera know, the work was left incomplete at the composer's death. The version used here is the standard one, made by Busoni's student Philipp Jarnach, not the newer one by the conductor Anthony Beaumont.
I should state a few things more for those unfamiliar with Doktor Faust. The music is considered difficult for the listener, not that its expressive language is particularly advanced for its time. Rather, the whole has an intellectual air about it, with often dark and deep music, music lacking in catchy tunes and snappy rhythms. At times it seems to embrace several styles: Wagner might seem to emerge here, or Hindemith there, or even Bach in a few places. It seems to anticipate Stravinsky, from his Symphony of Psalms and suggests much else. One can assess there is a curious dichotomy here: the music is easy on the ear, but difficult on the mind. Furthermore, the opera has an episodic character that might befuddle some viewers. But, in the end, it is a masterpiece. And for that, especially in a performance this good, it can be recommended highly.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Cummings