The Wolf Trap production of Busonis's "Doktor Faust' that opened last night is a remarkable operatic spectacle that might more accurately be billed as "Busoni's 'Doktor Faust', as directed, extensively embellished and converted into a psychodrama by Frank Corsaro."
Corsaro is the boldest brainstormer of America's opera world. He seems to feed on bigger and bigger challenges - and chances. With "Doktor Faust" he goes for broke, on a budget reportedly in excess of $300,000.
Corsaro raises the kaleidoscopic lighting effects for which he is famous virtually to the level. If a sund and light show. And his predisposition for revising dramatic action turns 'Doktor Faust" into a stage work that even Busoni himself, but or the music, might fuil to recognize. That is to, however, to assume that Busoni would dislike it: any composer who includes in a single scene King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Samson, Delilah, John the Baptist and Salome - in addition to Faust and Mephistophels - is out to make a splash. And Corsaro leaps to the invitation.
Whatever the character of the staging, though, the most significant thing about this enterprise is that Wolf Trap is apparently giving the first American professional staging of a 52-year-old work that many music and theater people would include on their lists of the century's most significant thing about this enterprise is that Wolf Trap is apparently giving the first American professional staging of a 52-year-old work that many music and theather people would include on their lists of the century's most important operas. It is one of those notoriously difficult pieces that suffers the fate of being more sung about than sung.
"Doktor Faus" is more about the forces of evil in the abstract than a drama about characters of evil, with a reach that occasionally exceeds its grasp. Perhaps its time was not to come until it caught the eye of a director like Corsaro, with a similar tendency toward overreach.
Never before have Corsaro's filmed visual images cascaded past the eye at such a pace. Filmed in Europe, there are hundreds of movie and still projections upon the scrims - varying in effect from ethereal to erotic to baffling to flagrantly self-indulgent, at least as viewed at the final dress rehearsal.
What Corsaro does with the dramatic action is even more radical. As originally written by Busoni, the text of "Doktor Faust" is relatively simple rendering - deliberately un-Goetheian - of the legend of the 16th-century scholar-alchemist who makes a deal with the devil. In this version the quid is Mephistopheles's services during the course of Faust's life and the quo is Faust's services for Mephistopheles in the ever after. The opera draws on a morality play with puppets that Busoni saw as a child and that triggered in him a lifelong Faust fixation.
From this identification premise Corsaro converts "Doktor Faust" into a play within a play.The spoken prologue at the beginning and Busoni's symphonic sections that interlace the story become staged and filmed imaginary interluded from the composer's life.
Biographical scenes blend into the action of "Doktor Faust" as Busoni-Faust simply steps from his wheel-chair into action. One doubts that in Corsaro's career, he has ever stretched the material so much as here.
But after all, something has to go on during those interludes, and a director would be a fool to follow Busoni's direction on the spoken prologue: A poet steps "in front of the curtain." The real question is whether this conception provides insights into Busoni, or is merely high-brow Ken Russel movie schmaltz.
The results, dominated by the films and projections of Ronald Chase, are uneven. Actions sequences are cliched - the Oedipal implications from the first act's nightmarish parental quarrels are indeed worthy of Russell, as is the corny second-act seqjuence where a piano placed at seaside goes up in flames after the death of the mother.
On the other hand, the stills both in the interludes and in the Faust play, are often splendid. Yet the best moments come with the simplest settings which in turn coincide with the strongest music, as in the Duchess' flowing aria, sung glowingly by Noelle Rogers against a plain dark backdrop.
The simple approach is equally effective with Faust-Busoni's death, which Richard Stilwell sings and acts with the kind of poignancy that suggests a defeated man who welcomes death. Kenneth Riegel's Mephistopheles was often hard to hear, but he was said to be suffering from a throat infection. There was also the sonorous Wagner of Donnie Ray Albert, who sand Porgy at the Kennedy Center in recent weeks. The chorus, actors and the acrobats all were well-disciplined and the large orchestra, conducted by Cal Stewart Kellogg, distinguished itself. Corsaro's complex links between the visual images, the Busoni biography and the Faust play are often obscured by inability to hear the words, sung in English: This may be no more than the inevitable result of Wolf Trap's imprecise acoustics.
Corsaro has brought us an exciting production of an exciting work. The performance will be repeated Sunday night.