Opera: FAUST Hamburg State Opera

Click to follow
After the rise and fall of Communism in Life with an Idiot (seen at ENO in April) and the conflicting demands of art and society in Gesualdo (premiered in Vienna in May), for his third opera Alfred Schnittke has tackled "the big one" - Faust. It's not, strictly speaking, his third: though only just receiving its premiere in Hamburg, the work was first commissioned in 1980, and a version of Act 3, the Faust Cantata, was given at the 1983 Vienna Festwochen.

Schnittke and his librettist Jorg Morgener have hacked their way back through Goethe and Marlowe, and their musical satellites Busoni, Berlioz, Gounod et al, to the first published telling of the Faust story - Johann Spies's Historia von D Johann Fausten of 1587. Like an early version of a PC rulebook, this is a tut-tutting catalogue of Faust's transgressions, mostly falling under "sorcery" and "the devil's work", salaciously recounted. This is not Goethe's weary scholar, risking his soul in a magnificent act of defiance, more a mountebank doing a furtive backstreet deal.

There is a lot of muddled thinking here, creating a huge problem for any director. John Dew and his designer Heinz Balthes have settled for an undefined period, to emphasise the timelessness of Faust's dilemma. But this undercuts Schnittke's close adherence to Spies's text, anchored as it is in the Renaissance struggle between theocentric and anthropocentric world-views, or what Schnittke calls a "negative Passion" on the theme of "the unavoidable discrepancy between spirit and life". Nor does the catalogue nature of Spies's book offer much dramatic scope.

Schnittke also seems to have suffered a strange failure of moral nerve. Ambivalence rules. One longs for some of Goethe's muscular wit, Berlioz's passionate sympathy, or Thomas Mann's Olympian overview, instead of this fuddled belly-aching. The music reflects the ambivalence: the timelessness of Faust's dilemma is used merely as an excuse for Schnittke's all too familiar eclecticism, here co-opting quotes from everyone from Shostakovich to Wagner.

There are some stunning images, though. As Faust (Jurgen Freier) summons up Helen of Troy, we see the head of a huge, rearing horse, ruins, dead soldiers in modern combat gear; then Helen (Hanna Schwarz) appears, ripping off a mask to reveal herself as Mephistophila - Eros and Thanatos combined - who, in the final scene, grabs a mike and sings a tango, with a backing group of devils. The people, suddenly all sporting horns, join in. For the first time, they seem to be enjoying themselves. Not quite what Hannah Arendt meant by the banality of evil, but possibly close.