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2007-6, Zürich, Szenen aus Goethes Faust, review of Milena

Some personal impressions of Schumann’s

Szenen aus Goethes Faust, Zurich, June 2007

By Milena Svec Goetschi

Once again, a production which leaves behind mixed feelings, as it happens often nowadays in opera. First of all, and this is of capital importance, I was once again overwhelmed by the beauty of Schumann’s Faust, heavenly sung by a superb cast. Having the great opportunity to see and hear the oratorio once as a concert performance on Easter Monday and once as staged production in June during the Zürcher Festspiele, I was both times swept off my feet by brilliant singers, a sensitive conductor and a accurately playing orchestra.

Simon Keenlyside was outstanding as Faust, he showed the full range of his vocal capacity, from exquisite silent tones to high notes. Since he was forced to act in a kind of ancient greek manner, nearly static, he had to put all his expression in his voice, which he did greatly. Malin Hartelius has a gentle and rather light lyric soprano and was a touching Gretchen. In contrast to the performance at Easter, she managed to stand up better to the orchestra. Günther Groissböck as Mephistoteles provided an entirely convincing performance with his forceful and viril bass. Personally, I found the tenor Roberto Saccà miscast (even if he has a great voice), for my taste too much vibrato, too much italianità for Schumann and he didn’t really fit in the cast. Actually, he sang way better than on Easter Monday, but I couldn’t really get used to the voice. Eva Liebau as “Sorge” (sorrow) however was an excellent choice. Franz Welser-Möst conducted the orchestra in a light and sensible way and managed to create a mystic and heavenly sound. The choirs of the Opernhaus Zürich sung as well sensationally, especially the kids. It was a musical highlight in every sense. And that the “bare” music would have had satisfied enough was fully proven by the performance on Easter Monday.

The production by Hermann Nitsch… I’m lost for words and it’s nearly everything said about it in the numerous newspaper reviews –  I can only agree with these statements. It is simply not convincing. Most of the time, it is more annoying than enriching. And what I disliked most was that the staged performance disturbed the music and this fact is not excusable. The fact that they had to drop the curtain after every scene for quite a while enticed some people around us to talk and they didn’t stop even when the performance continued, so that others had to silence them by ‘shush!’. But most annoying was the fact that it simply interrupted the flow of music (what a contrast to Easter Monday!).

Which leads us to the famous artificial pig, disembowelled by Faust and some action-assistants in a bloody manner. The bowels and mesentery were extracted and stuffed back, extracted and stuffed back [….to be continued], with lots of background noises as the sound of splashing blood and plopping guts. But this was not enough for Nitsch and his assistant Andreas Zimmermann, they had to project the disembowelling onto big screens. The whole setting and noise distracted the attention of the audience from the heart-breaking singing of Gretchen in the front of the stage. Since there’s no accounting for tastes, I am not able to make any comments on the topic of the pig, but honestly, I found it rather unnecessary and only a provocation just for the benefit of a provocation (ironically, it didn’t cause any provocation, only a blank yawn – it was simply disgusting and that’s it). Nitsch has been using the same stylistic devices since thirty years and he doesn’t seem to grow artistically. Honestly, I sighed and thought: “Some people must have had a difficult childhood…”.

The costumes were like nightgowns or kaftans of a psycho sect, I didn’t see much sense in this choice, but anyway, tastes are different.  Luckily, after the disembowelling scene, there was a lack of ideas and the singers had to perform in a static way, but at least there were no more unnecessary disturbings and one could enjoy the singing. To be fair, there were a few beautiful settings, as for example the haunted castle or the choir-scenes, especially the children dressed up as lemurs. And there were touching moments, for example Faust carrying a child on his arm while singing.

But after all, the music was excellent and therefore it was worth the price and the settings remained marginal.

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