Scenes From Goethe’s Faust

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at Ravinia, August 4

Peter Schreier

at Ravinia, July 30

By Sarah Bryan Miller

Though most legends have some basis in fact, however covered with cultural grime they may become with the passage of years, we rarely have the means to discover the sources. But in the case of Faust, the academic who sold his soul to the devil for a second shot at youth and a first shot at high living, we know a good deal.

The original Dr. Faustus, born Georg Faust in the late 15th century, reportedly studied magic in Krakow and went by the imposing name of Magister Georgius Sabellicus Faustus Junior as he wandered the various German principalities getting what he could from a credulous populace in exchange for potions of dubious worth. His fellow necromancers and some knowledgeable churchmen regarded him as a drunken, boastful fraud with a wide vindictive streak, but he and his claims–that he could replicate the miracles of Christ, for example–were taken seriously by others. Among them were Martin Luther, who believed that Faust had attempted to put spells on him, and his fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who called Faust “a disgraceful beast and sewer of many devils.” Faust’s dog was thought to be a demon–part servant, part keeper–and the magician’s mysterious death by strangulation in about 1540 was widely believed to have been the work of Satan, come to collect when the contract ran out.

It didn’t take long for the legend to grow. The powerful, wicked necromancer Dr. Faustus became a staple in popular stories, puppet plays, and ballads; in 1587 he was immortalized in Historia von D. Johann Fausten, author unknown, the first of many books to take him up as a subject. The early versions of the story showed Faust choosing to continue in his wickedness and being therefore condemned to everlasting torment. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, written shortly before his brawling death in 1593, sends its protagonist to the pit, but Goethe’s humanistic vision, begun in the 1770s during the Enlightenment and finally completed in 1832, gives its antihero an out: after enjoying Helen of Troy and other delights of the flesh, Faust repents at the moment of death and gets to spend a blissful eternity as Dr. Marianus, praising God and receiving instruction from the erstwhile Gretchen (one of Goethe’s interpolations), whose appealing character is the focus of most of the later stage versions. The repentance and complete forgiveness of sins at the eleventh hour is fully consistent with Christian theology, though it’s a pretty good bet that Melanchthon wouldn’t have approved.

Sex, violence, and the struggle between good and evil are all staples of the lyric stage, so it’s not surprising that several composers have worked on the Faust legend, which has had a pretty good run in Chicago recently. Gounod’s Faust, a sentimental favorite, was heard at Lyric Opera last season, and Stravinsky’s modernist take (with its nasty twist at the end), The Rake’s Progress, took the stage the season before. In May Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus undertook Mahler’s Symphony no. 8, most of which deals with the final scene of Goethe’s book, and Boito’s towering voice ripper Mefistofele is scheduled for 1997-’98 at the Lyric. And last Sunday Eschenbach and the CSO presented Schumann’s Scenes From Goethe’s Faust at Ravinia, the first time this monumental work has been done by anyone in the Chicago area, which seems odd given the quality of the piece.

The material of part one of Schumann’s work is familiar from Gounod, and part three is the final scene of the book, the same texts treated by Mahler. Part two is new to those who know Goethe’s work only through its treatment by other composers; it deals with Faust’s death while accomplishing a noble work to benefit his fellow man–another of Goethe’s additions to the story. The music is a distinctly mixed bag, probably because it was written in bits and pieces over a period of nine years, but it’s all splendidly evocative of the Romantic ideal. The final scene can’t help but suffer in comparison with Mahler’s treatment, but in the earlier scenes Schumann avoids the treacly elements of Gounod’s setting.

Schumann was a fine writer for the voice, and for the most part Scenes From Goethe’s Faust received the kind of performance it deserved. Schumann’s Mephistopheles is a baritone, not a bass; Alan Held lacked one or two low notes, but otherwise sang well, with a large, dark voice that projected menace. Faust, also a baritone, was sung by Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, who has a beautiful voice that’s well focused and even. Skovhus seems particularly at home in declamatory passages, but has a tendency to sneak into his vibrato from a straight tone when the music is more lyrical.

After a summer inexplicably full of mediocre sopranos, Welsh singer Rebecca Evans, singing Gretchen, was a welcome revelation, with a sweet yet powerful voice of unforced loveliness. Unlike so many high sopranos, she doesn’t lose the beauty of her voice in the lower notes; it resounds throughout its range. She was joined by a formidable young mezzo-soprano, Michelle DeYoung, who has a rich voice and was confidently threatening in her scene with Faust in the role of Sorge (Worry).

German bass Franz-Josef Selig has a satisfyingly caliginous voice with low notes to spare. Of the seven CSO chorus soloists, soprano Debra A.G. Schuerer-DeNoon was a standout; her large voice has both silver and steel in it.

Legendary German tenor Peter Schreier was sadly miscast in this music; his voice is too worn to do justice to the elfin tones of Ariel. The chorus, joined in the second half by the all-girl Barrington Children’s Choir, sang with beauty and precision, and the chorus women dumped beauty in favor of characterization as the demonic Lemurs, to good effect. The orchestra played almost flawlessly, with conductor Christoph Eschenbach bringing out all the depth this music has to offer.

If at 61 Peter Schreier should consider stepping down from symphonic singing, he still has a tremendous amount to teach us about the art of lieder singing. On July 30 he presented a thoughtful, moving program of songs by Schubert and Schumann in the Martin Theatre, with Christoph Eschenbach providing a superb example of the accompanist as collaborator.

Lieder are an acquired taste, but an addicting one. Opera is pretty accessible, with its (usually comprehensible) story lines, big tunes, sets, costumes, and singers belting out money notes. In some ways opera is like having a beer–once you get past the first swallow it goes down easily. Lieder are more like a single-malt scotch–you have to know something about it to appreciate it and understand the subtle differences between brands. Some people never develop a taste for it.

A star like Thomas Hampson probably brings in his fans when he sings lieder, and some may get hooked as a result. But for anyone seeking a greater understanding of this art form the place to be was Schreier’s recital. He’s been living this music for decades, and it shows in the subtlety of his presentation.

If his voice shows signs of aging–he had trouble with the runs in Schubert’s “Ganymed” and some difficulty with sustained notes, and he had to constantly fight off a quaver–that dims in the face of his amazing artistry, his understanding of his material, and his ability to make his listeners understand as well. When the marriage of words and music is so completely realized, one is inclined to ignore or forget vocal shortcomings. New depths are apparent in his interpretations since the recordings he made when his voice was in its prime, and his songs were well chosen for meaning.

Eschenbach is trying to put new emphasis on the art song at Ravinia, with presentations by established singers and young singers from the Steans Institute. His own presence at the keyboard is a plus. It’s a marvelous feeling for a singer to be able to rely absolutely on an accompanist, and Eschenbach’s interpretations complemented Schreier’s work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of choir.