Opera Review: Busoni's Doktor Faust Opernhaus Graz

'They may not be "great art", but with a PR man like this Mephistophele s around, who needs inspiration, man?'
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"So let the work be ended," sings Ferrucio Busoni's Faust, a few moments before his death, bequeathing his creative powers to unborn generations. But it was left to Philipp Jarnach, the composer's friend and former pupil, to complete Busoni's unfinished masterwork for its Dresden premiere in 1925, a year after Busoni's death.

Perhaps more than any other version of the Faust legend, Busoni's is deeply autobiographical, a baring of the twin souls sharing the composer's breast that literally killed him: the Italian who became a German; the virtuoso concert pianist left with too little time to compose; the voracious polymath and the creative artist.

In the 70 years since that first Dresden production there have only been some 25 stagings. One reason for this comparative neglect is that the work presents a director with some hefty challenges. There is little action, and Busoni - who, like Beethoven, emphatically never did write for the gallery - makes considerable intellectual and cultural demands on the audience. The style is elliptical, Busoni's meaning seldom blindingly obvious.

The British-born, now New York-based director Gerald Thomas (who also designed the sets and costumes) has come up with some ingenious and daring answers to the opera's challenges. Thomas is a long-time collaborator of Philip Glass, and, together with Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson, makes up that trio of wild boys from across the Atlantic who have been shaking and moving European and American theatre and opera for the last decade or so.

But contrary to expectations, perhaps, Thomas here shows restraint and a sensitive affinity with the composer: by presenting Faust as a painter, Thomas narrows the discourse to a peculiarly 20th-century problem for the modern artist: "Whither now?"

With unprecedented access to the past, the future seems paradoxically barren. When this Faust (Jacek Strauch) summons up Lucifer, instead of six flames appearing, six previously blank canvases explode with a splash of colour. They may not be "great art", but with a PR man like this Mephistopheles around - George Gray's tempter first appears lying on Faust's bed wearing pink pyjamas and sucking a lollipop - who needs inspiration, man? Mephistopheles, as both composer and director make clear, is in all of us. Thomas takes narrower aim: the rampant vulgarisation, both aesthetic and moral, of the modern world can only spell death to the artist.

The revolving set has, on the one side, three claustrophobic semi-circular black walls, one behind the other; on the other side, five large cupboards, either empty or containing art treasures of the past. The set revolves frequently, conveying a rather nightmarish impression. It is also used to great effect during the many orchestral passages, when we see, as in a silent film, the events which Busoni, in his elliptical fashion, leaves out: for example, the initial rapture of Faust's life with the Duchess of Parma (the truly excellent young Martina Serafin), or her eventual death, sprawled lifeless across the same bed upon which, just one revolve earlier, we had seen her gleefully kneeling to applaud Faust's work. Now three black-winged figures loom over her - at once the three "students from Cracow", clearly Mephistopheles' henchmen, who had brought Faust the mysterious magical volume, the Clavis Astartis Magica, at the very outset, and the ravens from Part 2 of Goethe's Faust (to which Busoni's Faust is, in its concerns, closer than many another operatic version). A perceptive reading of what is, at times, a prophetic work.

The conductor Arturo Tamayo wrested a first-class performance from the Graz Philharmonic Orchestra.