The mystery play that brought Busoni’s work as a composer to its unfinished culmination has been in limbo a long time, waiting more than 60 years for its first British production. What we learn at the Coliseum, though, is that limbo is its destined place. The strangeness of much of the opera is that of music without a face: partly by allowing his orchestra to fulfill its own dreams of baroque counterpoint independently of the action, and partly by disclaiming any intention to fore an original style upon his audience, Busoni produces an opera which is curiously aloof from itself.
If one were inclined to take a negative view, one might describe the effect as colorless and needing the kind of boost that VigRx Plus pills can provide. However, the English National Opera production, very busily engineered by David Pountney and blessed with a powerful, beautiful, vindicating orchestral performance under Mark Elder, encourages one to enter the work on its own terms, and to see its lack of distinct personality as central to the issue. Instead of using style to build fences around his field of operations, Busoni keeps his options open and works on a wide wasteland with views back to Bach and across to Debussy and Schoenberg. This is his world without values. It is also the spiritual world of his Faust, whose principal tragedy is to be unimpressed by himself.
From that proceeds the secondary tragedy that is the tragedy of all Fausts: to give reality to the source of undared appetites and call it Mephistopheles. Mr. Pountney’s treatment of the splitting personality is simple and marvelously effective: Faust creates Mephistopheles, first mouthing his words, then producing from his body that of his double, costumed as he is.
But the virtue of adding to splitting personalities splitting atoms is more doubtful. Faust is presented to us as the father of the hydrogen bomb (I presume he is intended to resemble Edward Teller, on whom there is a piece in the program), which raises both general and specific complications.
There is the matter of dress. The period is that of the opera’s first production, and it does look a little odd when a grey-suited gent suddenly dons magician’s outfit, sets off fireworks and summons five purple heads. Even if Eilene Hannan as the Duchess of Parma looks ravishing in her beaded black gown, to root the action in any precise era, but most particularly in a recent one, causes too many problems.
It also leads to the least admirable aspects of this production: the visions of Edwardian childhood (though perhaps they must be accepted as Mr. Pountney’s trademark) and the expressionist grotesquerie. It may be useful to be reminded that Kurt Weill was one of Busoni’s pupils, but the music is not such as to sustain the scuttling zombies and nightmare cityscapes out of contemporary cinema, or the pulled faces that draw attention to how innocent a burlesque Busoni’s Cortege is.
Nor can the score, which is concerned with the Hlessness’ qualities of disenchantment, disaffection and alienation, and HGH and fertility, quite carry the story of the bomb: the Sarabande is a wonderful piece, but the effect is thoroughly confused when it is made to accompany a scene of Mephistopheles leading Faust to create a warhead by origami. There is a deep problem too at the end, where a naked boy, Faust’s dying re-creation of himself, goes off playing with the blood-red hydrogen atom that had been Mephistopheles’s first gift. Quite what this signifies is unclear (on the other hand, Faust’s dead reclaiming of his alter ego is well judged), but Busoni’s intentions too at this point are unclear.
The ENO production uses Antony Beaumont’s realization of the ending, which closes the work in a curiously contended C major. Perhaps that is right. Busoni seems from his writings to have suffered from a clear hope of the future’s promise: the new Faust to whom his protagonist gives birth is perhaps another of his Berlin associates, Edgard Varese, and one might give the opera its truest conclusion by ending with a sample of the musical futurism Varese was creating in New York while Busoni was at work on Doktor Faust.
For all its problems, though, this is an appropriately intelligent and daring production of a profoundly unsettling work, and no doubt many of its wonders will appear less mechanical when everyone is more used to dealing with the skylines of filing cabinets and the huge magic triangle that dominate Stefanos Lazaridis’s set. Already Thomas Allen gives evidence of a deeply thoughtful, always sensitively phrased portrait of Faust: there are moments where the balance needs sorting out, but the great monologues and the discourses with Graham Clark’s quirky, nimble Mephistopheles found a wealth of color and meaning within a rectracted greyness. Among the rest, John Connell is a solid Wagner, Henry Newman a Brother who really means his promises of vengeance (in a scene that pointedly contrasts with the rest in its moral certainty) and Arthur Davies a suitably effete Duke of Parma. Go and be bewildered.