Review: A Rare Staging Finds the Magic in Schumann’s ‘Faust’

Review: A Rare Staging Finds the Magic in Schumann’s ‘Faust’

HAMBURG — One reason Schumann’s “Scenes From Goethe’s ‘Faust’” is so rarely performed is its hybrid shape: part literary oratorio, part opera. Another handicap is his selections.

While other composers drawn to Goethe’s tragedy about a dissatisfied man who makes a pact with the devil have focused on the dark scenes from Part I — Faust’s ruinous love for Gretchen and the destructive vortex of events wrought by Mephistopheles — Schumann set his sights on the epilogue in heaven. Here Goethe imagines a metaphysical tug-of-war over Faust’s soul that zooms toward redemption in a way that is brainy, sublime and devilishly hard to stage.

An entrancing new production by Achim Freyer for the Hamburg State Opera, though, argues that it’s well worth trying. Mr. Freyer, an artist and director with a penchant for dense symbolism, takes a restrained approach to this overlooked gem. He conjures a world that, for all its surreal touches, has a zany beauty that gently smooths over Schumann’s dramatic flaws.

Mr. Freyer places the orchestra, choir, children’s chorus and most of the soloists on stage behind a black scrim. In front of the scrim, atop where the orchestra pit has been covered, actors in dark clothes and green faces move in slow motion, carrying and rearranging objects: a tin drum, a cutout of a church, the blue flower that was a key symbol of German Romanticism.

Between scrim and covered pit, blocking the audience’s view of the conductor, is a stylized copy of “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a man, seen from behind, looking out over swirling mists. Mr. Freyer’s “Wanderer,” though, is missing its head. By stepping behind the copy, Mr. Gerhaher’s Faust could merge with the painted seeker — either while gazing through the scrim toward the dark mystery of music, or out at the detritus of life and, beyond, the judgment of the audience.

As with so many classic works of Romanticism, Friedrich’s image came to be co-opted by the Nazis as a symbol of national exceptionalism. Thus the duality in Faust — knowledge and destruction — blends with the duality of the Romantic mountaineer who is the model of, simultaneously, contemplation and conquest.

The shadowy stage workers creep about cradling objects that sometimes seed a wealth of associations and sometimes pull into focus a narrative thread dropped by Schumann. A fragment of Goethe’s color wheel, a kabbalistic tetragram, and two dwarves with a Snow White apple all appear and vanish.

But in Schumann’s most operatic scene, in which Gretchen prays in church, plagued by guilt, a pantomime of props tells the full story. Bloodied rags, a naked baby doll, and a pair of wings remind the audience that the desperate Gretchen killed her illegitimate child in desperation.

Schumann assembles that scene brilliantly, with the solo soprano (here the glowingly effusive Christina Gansch) offset by a churning orchestra, taunted by Mephisto (Franz-Josef Selig, singing with kid-glove sarcasm). Soon the choir muscles in with a ferocious “Dies irae.”

The composer wields his large forces in a way that doesn’t overpower individual voices or the text. In the magisterial baritone Christian Gerhaher he found an interpreter able to let Goethe’s densely brilliant lines shine through the music.

Mr. Gerhaher has the power to project clarion vigor where needed. But more often his voice seems to become a vehicle for the words, with some passages delivered with a tone so lightened of vibrato that it approached the near-spoken style more commonly heard in modernist works. In the latter part of the evening, when he embodied the allegorical Dr. Marianus, whose worship of the Holy Virgin paves the way for Faust’s redemption, Mr. Gerhaher’s voice turned velvet and weightless.

The final apotheosis is a magnificent blend of soloists, choir and orchestra that pays homage to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” By then Mr. Freyer’s objects had been abstracted into geometric shapes of pure color, while video projections of the faces of Faust and Gretchen drifted upward on the scrim.

It would have been nice to lift that scrim for the applause, which the ensemble musicians rightfully shared with the soloists. The conductor Kent Nagano, who had led a burnished reading of the exquisite score, came to the front for his bow. But the choir and orchestra remained partially obscured in Mr. Freyer’s realm of music and mystery.

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