Monday, February 10, 2020

Capriccio Reissues Busoni’s “Opera Pairing”

courtesy of Naxos of America

As a resident of San Francisco, I had the good fortune to see the 2004 production by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) of Ferruccio Busoni’s full-length opera Doktor Faust. By the time SFO presented the work, it had already been performed in the United States by both the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. Nevertheless, it was a rare offering; and the opera was known to those few serious listeners who knew anything about the full scope of Busoni’s work (rather than just his reputation as a virtuoso pianist).

The composer died before the opera was first performed, but the score was completed by his pupil Philipp Jarnach. The opera was given its first performance in Dresden on May 21, 1925. In 1982 Anthony Beaumont, author of the first major study of both Busoni and his works, revised the completion of the opera, drawing upon sketches previously though to have been lost.

As a composer (rather than as a pianist) Busoni is best known for his pieces for solo piano. It is therefore not surprising that his work on Doktor Faust was preceded by the composition of two shorter operas through which he became acquainted with techniques that would integrate orchestral music and vocal music in the service of an over-arching narrative. The first of these was the one-act opera “Arlecchino,” more a study of the commedia dell'arte stock character than a full-fledged narrative. This was completed at the end of 1916 and first performed in May of the following year. Stefan Zweig would later write that the title character was “the philosophic mocker and raisonneur of the World War.”

“Arlecchino” was followed by Turandot, a two-act opera based on the same Chinese fable that inspired Giacomo Puccini to compose his opera of the same name. However, while Puccini turned that fable into an intense narrative, Busoni turned to a commedia dell’arte version of the story that had been written by Carlo Gozzi in the eighteenth century. In other words Turandot basically served to continue the spirit of “Arlecchino” expanded to two-act scale. Beaumont’s book Busoni the Composer notes that Busoni’s version was “justifiably” overshadowed by Puccini’s; but, for my money at least, that would be like saying that an orange is overshadowed by an apple because the latter does not need to be peeled before eating.

What is interesting is that both of these operas have more to do with the development of Busoni’s own language as a composer than they have to do with reflections on their sources. Thus, the musical language of Turandot evokes the spirit of Gozzi more than it does any effort to incorporate chinoiserie (which is clearly evident in Puccini’s score). Indeed, to underscore his departure from any suggestion of a Chinese context, the music at the beginning of Busoni’s second act is appropriated from “Greensleeves.” (Do the Chinese use the expression “go figure” the same way we do?) On the other hand a key instrumental theme in “Arlecchino” was lifted “whole cloth” from the Polonaise that concludes Busoni’s third piano sonatina, given the subtitle “ad usum infantis” (for the use of a child).

At the beginning of this year, Capriccio released a two-CD reissue of recordings of these two operas based on sessions that took place in Berlin in 1992. Since I was living in Singapore during the first half of the Nineties, I was unaware of the original release. (On the other hand my interest in Beaumont’s book goes all the way back to the Eighties.) Gerd Albrecht conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and a team of vocalists that are much more than highly capable.

This is very much a case of a recording that I am delighted to add to my collection. I am sure there are any number of opera lovers out there that are perfectly happy to take Doktor Faust on its own terms, unaware of how it fits into Busoni’s progress as a composer. For my part, however, now that I have developed an acquaintance with both “Arlecchino” and Turandot, I find myself craving for another opportunity to see a full-staged production of Doktor Faust.

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