You’d think there were enough good stories available so that composers didn’t need to recycle them. But there are a number of operas that are based on tales that have been around the operatic block more than once. This article is the first of a series examining operas and related musical works based on the same story.
I’ll start with a song. Gretchen am Spinnrade is taken from Part One of scene 18 of Goethe’s Faust. The soprano is Jessye Norman. The song, written when Schubert was 17, is one of the supreme masterpieces of the art song genre. Gretchen is at her spinning wheel thinking of Faust and all he seems to have promised her. She is overwhelmed with teenage emotion. The piano uncannily mimics the spinning wheel she uses as she sings. That a 17 year old composer could both understand and convey the emotional turmoil depicted in a song about a 17 year old is a mystery of art.
Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust is a series of scenes inspired by Goethe’s play. Its species is hard to define. It’s not really an opera, or an oratorio, or any other well defined form. Berlioz ended up calling it a dramatic legend which really does little to explain what it is. But no matter, it’s a rose by any other name. The aria Nature immense, impénétrable et fière is to a text by the composer. The tenor is Michael Spyres who will sing this role at the Met this coming season.
Gounod’s Faust is a dumbed down version of Goethe’s complex play. I don’t mean this comment to be taken as meaning the opera isn’t very good; it is. It’s just a very simplified version of the play. In the opera house it works very well if the right singers are engaged for the principal roles. The most compelling scene, from a dramatic perspective, is the encounter between Marguerite and Méphistophélès (accompanied by a posse of devils) in a cathedral. The poor girl is tormented almost to madness by the forces of evil. Marguerite and Méphistophélès are Victoria de los Angeles and Boris Christoff respectively. Church Scene Faust
The German composer Louis Spohr wrote an opera based on the Faust legend, not Goethe’s play. It was first seen as a singspiel in 1816. It was later worked into a grand opera in 1852. In Sophr’s version Faust is a baritone. It doesn’t stand up very well to the competition and is not likely to be revived very often. Faust’s aria Bloder Tor! Ich kann hier fragen is from Act 2. The baritone is Boje Skovhus.
Boito’s Mefistofele is performed regularly. It is the opera based on Goethe’s play which comes closest to its source in its understanding of the great German poet’s intentions. It exists mainly as a vehicle for a great bass who gets to be an over the top Devil-in-Chief. Here is Feodor Chaliapin’s Mephisto in full denial mode. Son lo spirito che nega. Boito’s reputation rests on this opera and the two librettos he wrote for Verd’s final two operas. He also wrote the libretto for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, but it’s such a bag of popcorn that he didn’t attach his real name to it.
Liszt’s A Faust Symphony was first performed in 1857. It ends with a tenor and chorus singing the same lines from Goethe that end Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Leonard Bernstein considered the symphony to be Liszt’s masterpiece. The tenor is Siegfried Jerusalem, Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony. A Faust Symphony finale
Here’s the Mahler setting of the above text. It’s been previously posted here. Mahler 8 finale Bernstein Vienna Phil
The German based, Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust was left unfinished at his death in 1924. Busoni was more valued for his musical intellect than for the emotional content of his music. His Faust is based on the legend not Goethe’s play. He also wrote the libretto. The opera was completed by his student Philipp Jarnach. An alternative ending was complied in 1982 by Antony Beaumont from sketches by Busoni that had been previously thought lost. In this version of the tale, Faust is a baritone while Mephistopheles is a tenor. The opera is still occasionally done. The Met staged six performances of the work in 2001 with Thomas Hampson in the title role. The final scene ends with a repetition of Faust’s last words: “Blut meines Blutes, Glied meines Gliedes, dir vermach’ ich mein Leben, ich, Faust, ich, Faust, ein ewiger Wille.” [“Blood of my blood, limb of my limb, I bequeath to thee my life, I, Faust, I, Faust, one eternal will.”]. But it’s the devil who gets the last word. Dietrich Fischer Dieskau is Faust on this recording of the opera’s conclusion. Busoni’s Faust was a role he sang frequently, but he sang almost everything ever written frequently.
I could list more versions of this story, but it’s popularity should by now be obvious. RIP.