A different Faust

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is running a season of concerts celebrating the music of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1988); yesterday evening's concert at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Valdimir Jurowski, was particularly interesting as it included the UK Premiere of excerpts from his opera Historia von D. Johann Faust (The History of D. Johann Faustus) first performed in 1994 in Hamburg.

The first half of the concert consisted of Haydn's Symphony No. 22 ('The Philosopher') and The Prelude and Good Friday Music from Wagner's Parsifal - perhaps chosen to refect Faust's occupations as a Philosopher and a Doctor of Divinity before his dabblings in the black arts. Both were well played, the Haydn being notable for the use of natural horns (no valves) as originally used by Haydn.

The excerpts from The History of D. Johann Faustus amounted in fact to a shortened version - Act 1 almost complete, sections of Act 2, and Act 3 complete, performed continuously and running around 70 minutes. Schnittke drew his libretto not from the obvious source, Goethe, but from a book of stories about Faust published in 1587. The story is presented in a fairly naïve manner compared to the depth of Goethe's (or Marlowe's for that matter), though effectively. Faust dabbles in the black arts, raises an evil spirit, Mephistopheles, and contracts for him to serve Faust for twenty-four years after which Faust must serve Mephistopheles. Faust later attempts to repent but is threatened with a terrible death and forced to sign a new contract. His eventual death is described in gruesome detail: the author seems less concerned with the effect on Faust's immortal soul.

The opera is actually something between an opera and an oratorio, having a long narrative section to begin with and some subsequent narration. The chorus act like a Greek chorus, mostly commenting on the events rather than being a part of them. Mephistopheles is represented by two singers: a counter-tenor representing his urbane and seductive side, and a soprano representing the savage character beneath this.

The presentation was semi-staged, using the narrow space in front of the orchestra and with the singers moving into the choir stalls and into the main auditorium at times. Modern dress was used - Mephistopheles (the tenor) began in a suit but ended in a jacket, tights, and high heels; Faust did his research and made his contract on a laptop.

The vocal lines are wide-ranging and angular; the orchestration has a romantic colouration coupled with modern atonality. There is a little, though not highlighted, use of electronic instruments within the large orchestra; at the end the female Mephistopheles sings threateningly through a deliberately over-amplified microphone as specified by the composer (the singers used subtle amplification with radio microphones throughout, necessary because of their use of different areas of the stage and the dense orchestration).

The work is dramatically effective, with strongly drawn parts for the protagonists and effective use of the chorus to comment and sing a Moral at the end (echoed by the main characters, though not with sincerity by Mephistopheles). It was well performed by Stephen Richardson as Faust, Markus Brutscher as the Narrator, and Andrew Watts and a dangerously seductive Anna Larsson as Mephistopheles; though not well known it's a work which deserves wider performance.

Posted: Thu - November 19, 2009 at 09:28 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM