In the 19th century, the German composer Robert Schumann composed the musical drama ‘Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust’ in pieces and fragments. Translating the philosophical texts to the stage is a difficult task, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen proves in a new production.
‘Faust’ by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of the great classics of Western literature. The book consists of two parts, which were published in 1808 and 1832. Robert Schumann decided to compose an opera based on the book in 1844, but quickly abandoned that plan because it turned out to be too difficult and complicated.
He composed seven scenes from the book between 1844 and 1853. They are not really narrative and they are not really related to each other. It is therefore not an opera in the usual sense of the word. A musical drama is a better description, but one that one would say in Hollywood is unfilmable.
- ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Fist’ is a musical drama by Robert Schumann (1810-1856).
- He selected seven scenes from the famous book by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
- ‘Faust’ is about human redemption.
- Opera Ballet Vlaanderen asked the German architect and artist Johan Rosefeldt to direct the work.
This is also the reason why ‘Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust’ has been performed by few opera houses in the last 150 years. Opera Ballet Vlaanderen is now embarking on this at the request or suggestion of the conductor Philippe Herreweghe, who has been a big fan of the work for years. Fair. The music in Schumann’s ‘Faust’ is rock solid.
She is compelling and captivating from first to last note, with the right dose of alternation between massive choral singing and solo interventions. Philippe Herreweghe was himself in the orchestra pit in Antwerp. For the occasion, he led the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra through the score and not the opera orchestra itself.
You heard that at the premiere Wednesday night. An opera orchestra is used to playing in the orchestra pit and adapts to that situation. It mutes the volume so as not to compromise the balance with the stage. The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra played as if it were a home game in the Queen Elisabeth Hall. Loud, but thankfully not too loud. The sound was beautifully transparent, which made the individual instruments sound clear.
‘Faust’ is a book about good and evil, about darkness and light, about guilt and redemption. About the devil Mephistopheles, who makes a bet with God about how far one can drive a man: to ultimate goodness or ultimate evil? Dr. Faust, a disillusioned doctor, is their guinea pig. He is willing to sell his soul to the devil if he can make his dissatisfaction with life disappear.
Schumann drew mainly on Faust’s second book for the seven scenes of his opera. It focuses on the redemption of the soul. It is a difficult task to visualize it on stage.
The whole looks powerful in the first scenes, but gradually the boredom hits visually.
Opera Ballet Vlaanderen asked the German architect and artist Julian Rosefeldt to direct the work in close collaboration with choreographer Femke Gyselinck. In the center of the stage is a large screen on which images are projected for two hours. The beginning, with a picture of the cosmos, is very strong. As with the beginning of the Star Wars movies, the synopsis of the story is rolled across the screen.
On stage, it seems that yoga or meditation exercises are practiced by the many people on stage. Opera Ballet Vlaanderen and Collegium Vocale Gent’s choir and children’s choir are called to the production.
The whole looks powerful in the first scenes, but gradually the boredom sets in. The images on the big screen change for each scene. From the empty cosmos it goes via planets and spacecraft to a withered earth. On stage, the choir members are seen performing the most diverse movements, but after a while, one begins to wonder what it is for something and where it leads.
Yes, it’s going to be about mystery and the deeper meaning of life, but it does not necessarily provide a strong theater. Goethe’s deeply philosophical texts do not really make it easy either. In the book, you can think for five minutes after every other sentence. In opera, it’s a little harder.
What does not help either is the choice to film a rave party in a forest for the long final scene. The recordings are played in slow motion and many close-ups are displayed. It quickly becomes very boring, even to Schumann’s beautiful closing music. Maybe his drama is really unfilmable.
‘Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust’ runs until July 2 in Antwerp, in the autumn in Ghent