As the Faust Festival closed in the Opera House on Sunday, I already miss the darkness, the black magic that cast its devilish hand across the stage for those two weeks; strange and mysterious and yet beautiful.
The festival consisted of five operas. The brilliance of Gounod’s “Faust” is rivalled by Boito’s “Mefistofele”. Maybe the four hours of “Faust” or “Mefistofele” with epic modern sets could not be matched by the other three operas. There was so much energy and dynamism combined with an element of magic that it was inevitable not all the five could be equal players.
“Mefistofele” is the only completed opera by Arrigo Boito, and one of the many pieces based on the legend of Faust. The most popular earlier work was “Faust” by composer Charles Gounod. Boito saw this work as superficial and lacking in depth. But both operas were staged in the Opera House with dazzling magnificence in their own ways.
The spiral staircase stretching up to the heavens in “Mefistofele” was a “Starlight Express” meets Tower of Babel; it rotated, it changed colour but it worked as such an effective stage set. Giant plastic bubbles sending reflections in rainbow colours encased people, suspended from the sky. It could have been tacky, maybe to some people it was, but for me its weirdness and stark modernity worked with great effect. It added a dynamism to the opera in much the same way as “Faust”.
A four-hour opera can be dry and heavy, even with the best story and performers, but the striking modern twists ensured the operas pulsated with crackling life through to the last note.
Busoni’s “Doktor Faust” was concise; a neat mathematical puzzle of dizzying algebra equations as backdrop. Faust working on an experiment comes across a black magic book brought by three students. He calls on the devil and accepts Mephistopheles as his servant. But in return he must serve him after death. He seduces and abandons the Duchess of Parma.
Faust is to die at the stroke of midnight because he has destroyed the magic book. In a snowy street he is approached by a beggar, the duchess with the infant he left her with. Again in his magic circle, he casts around himself one more time, he transfers his life to his child before the deadline of midnight and dies with his soul to live on.
Busoni’s opera focuses primarily on the Faust who became famous as a magician. Here music and philosophy blend and are inextricably entwined. Busoni was so consumed by his opera he even believed his death was linked to Faust’s own, and he died before completing it in a strange twist of fate.
The weaker elements were the other two operas, Weber’s “Der Freischütz” and Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”.
“The Rake’s Progress” follows the theme of selling one’s soul to the devil as Tom does and pays the ultimate price. Like Faust the Shadow tells him he will die on the stroke of midnight. However, this opera was a cracking and splitting fault line in the festival. The English seemed to be out of synch with Stravinsky’s score, the stage set was like a flatpack and some of its elements were distasteful at best.
Tom is ordered to commit suicide on the stroke of midnight and a giant box appears labelled “Tom and sucide kit” complete with noose, gun, poison and cut-throat razor. Was this really necessary? Yes, opera covers death in all aspects including self-murder but to trivialise suicide in a country that once claimed the highest rate in the world seems gratuitous.
Doktor Faust too is set to die at midnight, ordered by Mephistopheles, but there is an element of sublime about it, his soul passing on gracefully.
“Der Freischütz” seemed to reach for the elements of a great opera, just never quite getting there. Maybe it was the unchanging scenery. It was modern but hardly altered throughout the opera. Maybe it was the dual language use; sung in German yet using Hungarian for spoken dialogue, mystifying the tourists in the audience.
I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be humourous or not and here lay another fault line running through the Faust Festival. “Doktor Faust”, “Mefistofele” and “Faust” had ever-changing sets of sheer brilliance. There was no confusion, weakness or unnecessary stalling. The staging, the set and the music effortlessly entwined to produce works of the fantastical, the mythical, the magnificent.
But essentially all the operas deal with selling your soul to the devil for wordly advancement and to hell, literally with the consequences. Pleasure will be paid one way or another but for tonight we can dance on the tabletop and sin. The stage set with gambling tables and wild dancing as in “Mefistofele” is the ultimate morality symbol – sin now, pay later.
The world is a mess but tonight we will just dance in the embers as life turns to burning ashes and forget tomorrow exists.
Hungarian State Opera
Andrássy út, District VI
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next season go to: www.opera.hu