2007-4, Zürich, Szenen aus Goethes Faust

Szenen aus Goethes Faust

Composer : Robert Schumann
Librettist : Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Venue and Dates : Tonhalle, Zurich
9 April 2007
Concert performance
Conductor : Franz Welser-Möst
Performers :

Gretchen /Poenitentium : Malin Hartelius
Martha / Mater gloriosa : Kismara Pessatti
Sorge / Sopran Solo : Eva Liebau
Noth / Magna Peccatrix : Martina Welschenbach
Mangel / Mulier Samaritana : Irène Friedli
Schuld / Maria Aegyptiaca : Katharina Peetz
Faust / Dr Marianus : Simon Keenlyside
Mephistopheles / böser Geist / Pater Profundus : Günther Groissböck
Ariel / Pater Ecstaticus : Roberto Sacc
Pater Seraphicus : Ruben Drole
Zurich Opera House Choir and Orchestra

Notes : To be performed in Zurich as a staged opera in June


Tages-Anzeiger, 11. April 2007 (Tobias Rothfahl)

Translated by Milena Svec Goetschi

Swaying as virtue

Was Goethe’s “Faust” meant for the stage or for the reading room? It can hardly be decided – this was also Robert Schumann’s experience, when he wrote the “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust”: Initially he planned it as an opera, then he became unsure and intended the work rather for the concert hall (as the “reading room“ so to speak), but soon he questioned this decision, and in the end not one integral performance was staged during his lifetime. Hence the attitude of the Opera House Zurich appears consequent: Instead of deciding between the two possibilities, they chose to have both. On Easter Monday, a purely musical version could be heard in the Tonhalle Zurich, in June the curtain will be raised for a scenic performance (in the context of the Zürcher Festspiele).

The soloists, choirs and orchestra of the Zürcher Oper under conductor Franz Welser-Moest were acknowledged with large applause, and it can only be understood as a privilege with which matter of course the opera house manages to bring such an ensemble of word class singers on stage: in the main roles Simon Keenlyside as Faust, Malin Hartelius as Gretchen and Guenther Groissboeck as Mephisto. Schumann’s swaying between opera and concert music left distinct traces in the composition: Veritable opera scenes stand next to moments with oratorio character of  “religious music without religion”, e.g. in Faust’s apotheosis. Faust’s urgent striving for knowledge and his struggle for the meaning of life are confronted by Mephisto’s cynicism, who cannot understand the sense of such a quest, since death marks everything to fugacity and void-ness anyway. Goethe left it in abeyance which of the two counter-parts finally keeps right. Schumann though seems to take sides and endows Faust in the concluding verses of “Faust II” with a nearly sacral glorification.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 11 April 2007 (Alfred Zimmerlin)

Translated by Milena Svec Goetschi

Exhilarating moments

Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” at the Tonhalle Zurich.

Robert Schumann worked nine years on the “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” (1844-1853), which was for him a  unusually long time. It became a unique concert piece, a hybrid between opera and oratorio, which leaves hardly anyone unaffected. Thus today performances are rare; therefore it is a mighty deed that the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zurich and the opera house choir (excellently prepared by Ernst Raffelsberger) undertook under the direction of Franz Welser-Moest to perform it as a Philharmonic concert in the Tonhalle Zurich. The Faust-Scenes consist of three large “Abtheilungen”, whereby the last one, Faust’s “Verklärung” (apotheosis), was composed first. Only after the debut performance of the centenary of Goethe’s birthday did Schumann compose parts one and two: Gretchen and Faust are portrayed therein. Few months before the composer was hospitalised into the asylum of Endenich a marvellous Overture emerged, which integrates his symphonic achievements in one great culmination. At the same time Schumann rewrote the final part radically, the “chorus mysticus”, which he now let unearthly float away.

Welser-Moest however went for the solemn-apotheothic early version of 1844.  So much amazing music is to be heard. There are these typical Schumann moments, where a musical thought can intoxicate. Particularly in the first two parts, these moments are embedded in a large dramatic drift, into an infinite melody so to speak: Schumann’s Dresden “Tannhaeuser” experience is palpable. And yet he did not forget about his own sound. Welser-Moest understood to point out this side of the work which remotely reminds one of Wagner; the music got caught in a maelstrom from the first note, which culminated in the dramatic climax at the end of the second part, with Faust’s death. The conductor let the orchestra play in luscious colours, dynamically often at the upper limit of what was beneficial for a good transparency in interaction with the choir, particularly in the third part. Impressive are the solo voices: Simon Keenlyside’s Faust/Dr. Marianus, Guenther Groissboeck’s Mephisto/Pater Profundus developed with a matchless intensity and colourfulness, and the Gretchen of Malin Hartelius could leave one deeply moved. Rather mismatching was the strongly vibrating tenor of Roberto Saccà as Ariel and Pater Ecstaticus, while Ruben Drole in his short appearance as Pater Seraphicus delivered again a brilliant performance. Thus a memorable event indeed.

Der Zürcher Oberländer, 12. 4. 2007 (Werner Pfister)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Zurich Tonhalle: The unknown Schumann – Franz Welser-Möst conducted “Scenes from Faust”

Confessions of a driven one

The Tonhalle-concerts of the Zurich Festival are dedicated to the unknown Schumann. The 3rd Philharmonic Concert with Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House gave a foretaste.

Schumann is not the same as Schumann – a banal phrase but also a fact that the musical world is not aware of completely to the day. You must know that it’s not a marginal part of Robert Schumann’s compositional work that still does not find its way into the concert halls or into the awareness of the broader interested public. The opera “Genoveva“ ranks among these misjudged works, the late violin concerto and all the more the great work “Szenen nach Goethes Faust“. After more than 20 years of absence they were performed again at the Tonhalle on Easter Monday – thanks to the initiative of the opera house and its musical director Franz Welser-Möst.

Being a late work the “Faust-Scenes” are automatically discredited as ranking among those later works where it can be heard that Schumann’s creative inspiration had decreased. As a “proof” for this, people like to cite the tragic fact that only few months after the completion of the “Faust-Scenes” Schumann tried to commit suicide by jumping from the bridge across the Rhine in Düsseldorf. The attempt failed but Schumann was hospitalised in a mental home where he had to spend the last two years of his life.

A drama of salvation

Schumann may claim to have been the first composer to deal with the second part of Goethe’s “Faust”. The beginnings of his “Faust-Scenes” go back to the year 1844. A first part of the composition – the last scene from “Faust II” – existed completely in 1849 and was performed for the first time on the occasion of Goethe’s 100th birthday. Afterwards Schumann worked his way to the beginning more or less step by step. In 1850 both the work’s second and, finally, the first part existed. In 1853 he also delivered an overture. Schumann never heard the complete work – the first performance took place in Köln only in 1862.

The inner context of this work that is often denounced as “heterogeneous“ develops ironically, if at all, in the parts of Goethe’s text that Schumann left out in his composition. Which is much. It consists of nearly four acts from “Faust II” – all in all those plots that do not deal with the idea of salvation. Because the concept of Schumann’s work is a salvation-drama. Gretchen and Faust, lost human beings, are saved by divine grace, Death and Devil lose their power, “gerettet ist das edle Glied” [“the noble member is saved”].

Change of mood

In the last analysis it is a religious and dramatic subject and Franz Welser-Möst makes clear the proximity of the “Faust-Scenes” to a (imaginary) stage in every moment. The elevated stands side by side with the pastoral, elves’ voices contrast with the lemurs’ singing, penitents vie with blessed boys in singing. The Opera House Chorus – with a supplementary chorus, youth chorus and childrens’ chorus, all rehearsed by Ernst Raffelsberger – mastered its multiform task with a superior abundance of sound. What Schumann had imbued so lavishly with lyrical intimacy and flowing tune came to blossom wonderfully.

The orchestra of the Zurich Opera acted with spirit and an abundance of sound. Franz Welser-Möst obviously showed a particular intuition for the high-contrast changes of mood in this music full of character and clearly seemed to interpret them as ingenious confessions of a spirit at once sensitive and driven without snatching all the secrets from Schumann by doing so.

Perfect Faust

No superlative would be put too high to appreciate Simon Keenlyside as Faust and Dr Marianus. A gorgeous baritone with a heroic and virile range; a singer who articulated Goethe’s lines so exemplarily that singing and speaking became completely at one with him. And what magnificent music this Faust is allowed to sing! Compared to this really outstanding singer the others did not have an easy time. Malin Hartelius’s Gretchen did not lack in emotional fervency but in vocal power. Günther Groissböck’s Mephisto came across as a little cramped not only physically (to his little finger) but often vocally too; and Roberto Saccà’s Ariel (and Pater Ecstaticus) was charged with too much vibrato. Maybe this could be worked on. Because in June, on the occasion of the Zurich Festival, the opera house will stage Schumann’s “Faust-Scenes”, then (and surely for the first time in complete history of the work’s reception) as a veritable opera. We will be there again.

Der neue Merker Nr. 205 (May 2007)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

This setting of “Faust”, which came into being from 1844 to 1853 and had its world premiere posthumously in 1862, cannot be heard too frequently nowadays. Meeting it now was not only interesting but parts of it were almost overwhelming. This had its reason on the one hand in the work itself conveying pure romanticism with a great orchestra, and on the other hand in an exemplary rendition by Franz Welser-Möst who together with the excellent Orchestra of the Zurich Opera entirely savoured the score’s beauty and intensity in all its colours.

After an impressive overture, which was actually written right in the end only few months before his committal into a mental home, Schumann uses three sections to encompass firstly excerpts from “Faust I”  (love scene, Gretchen’s monologue in front of the image of the Mother of God, cathedral), then the sunrise at the beginning of “Faust II” and the dying-scene from Act 5 and lastly the complete mystical final scene (Faust’s transfiguration). The music is full of great beauty, possesses dramatic power and for all of its autonomy, echoes from Wagner cannot be denied.

It was admirable and to the conductor’s particular credit to give as much consideration to the drama as to the lyrical transparency. In this he was assisted by – apart from the orchestra – by the Choruses (in addition to the chorus there was the supplementary chorus, the youth chorus and the children’s chorus) of the Zurich Opera marvellously prepared by Ernst Raffelsberger, and a host of well-known soloists. At the head of them Simon Keenlyside who with his full, round baritone and much expression fulfilled the requirements of Faust/Dr. Marianus perfectly. (Like the others this was all but a debut for him as he has sung this part only once before – standing in for Hampson about 10 years ago.) Günther Groissböck (Mephisto/Evil Spirit/Pater Profundus) sang with sonorous, beautiful bass very concisely and Malin Hartelius (Gretchen/Una Poenitentium) moved with soulful lyricism, but did not always manage to cope with the orchestra in Part 1. Roberto Saccà (Ariel/Pater Ecstaticus) offered with a narrow voice too only an average performance, whereas Ruben Drole, employed just for a short while as Pater Seraphicus, was able to please. Among the ladies’ squad, which appears mainly as ensemble, were – Kismara Pessatti (Marhte/Mater Gloriosa), Martina Welschenbach (Misery/Magna Peccatrix), Irène Friedli (Want/Mulier Samaritana), Katharina Peetz (Guilt/Maria Aegyptiaca) and Eva Liebau (Sorrow/Soprano solo) the last-mentioned attracted attention as a soloist too with a beautiful voice.

A gorgeous concert that also gave the audience the chance to realise their fantasy and to remember great productions of Goethe’s giant work. We shall see how the scenic realisation by Hermann Nitsch of this oratorium – with the same cast – for this year’s Zurich Festival will work.

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