Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 2022-23: Doktor Faust

Auditorium Chatter or The Best They Were Allowed to Do

By Polina Lyapustina
Photo credit: Michele Monasta

There was a lovely old lady, clearly a regular at Maggio, sitting next to me, who, during the change of the scene, quietly asked, “is it an interval already?”

“No, another half of an hour,” I replied. She only sighed in response. 

There was also a stylish man in his 40s, who stood up twice during the first part, getting annoyed by the constant chatter in the audience during the performance. I understood him. I, too, could hear the people talking everywhere around better than the soloists on stage. 

That said, I cannot say it was a bad night. I was extremely inquisitive to see this early 20th-century opera by Busoni that had its long-awaited Italian premiere at Maggio in 1942 (17 years after its premiere in Dresden) but was then abandoned at the theatre since 1964. 

Director Davide Livermore presented his version of the play, referring largely to the life and personality of the composer who composed the music to his own libretto. All the characters, both protagonists and the supporting actors are facets of the composer himself, always wearing or carrying a mask of his face with them. Therefore, the good (if it is) and the bad are merged into one man, and reflected in each other, creating a psychological game that lasts for 3 hours to head the infamous payoff. 

We start with biographic facts from the life of the composer, accompanied by the orchestral introduction, which Cornelius Meister brought with an early feeling of anxiety mixed in with the Easter music. Nothing was clear.

The conductor would continue successfully channeling the numerous topics into his reading of the score during the whole performance, though one could hear the orchestra struggling to gather them into one whole. So even the starting point seems very unstable. 

Two mirror walls on the sides of the stages add more dimensions to what happens on stage. And so the performance itself turned into a multilayered and cross-dimensional narrative. 

This story is not easy to tell. Neither is it easy to catch. 

And here, I believe, hid the main problem of the night. There must have been more work and more effort to not only bring this palace of philosophic reflection on stage but to invite and host the audience inside of it. 

The Missing Voice 

Once the prolog begins, we see the stage, filled with “copies” of Busoni, we are intrigued and looking for the key, the voice who’d come and tell us what is this all about. But it simply never happened. 

There must be a reason why the baritone Dietrich Henschel, the veteran of this role and a breathtaking actor, was barely heard from the stage. The greatly praised acoustics of the Maggio didn’t help at all, and the soft sound of the orchestra entirely dissolved the voice of the protagonist.

Henschel’s acting was one of a kind, and deep inside I was begging to ALSO hear him, as was most of the audience, I believe; after his every attempt, I could better hear people talking in their seats.

Unfortunately, Daniel Brenna’s Mephistopheles wasn’t convincing either. At first, his tenor was sometimes uncontrollably powerful, but with the development of the story he lost his color and lust, which didn’t help the singer to become another possible guide to this story.

The brightness and the light were brought to the stage by Ukrainian soprano Olga Bezsmertna who portrayed the Duchess of Parma with confidence and style, delivering a truly solid volume and firm high notes. Her solo “Er ruft mich” was one of the best moments of the performance (and also proved that hall, in fact, had good acoustics). 

The Lost Background 

With the audible part missing, the audience was looking for the other anchors in this performance to keep them grounded, and the visual part must have been one of them. 

While the acting of Henschel was incomparable and exceptional and certainly add many dark colors to the performance, the rest of the cast seemed not to pay that much attention to this component. 

And so, all the numerous figures, which sometimes seemed left unattended, were swallowed up by the background — the huge LED screen, in addition to two mirrors at the sides, was the main stage set. 

Those video backgrounds always make me wonder if they can ever be enough. There’s a lot of artistic freedom in using them, which is great. But, very often, they leave the characters on stage as flat as the screen itself, depriving them of interaction with the set, making them move like bugs pinned to the collector’s showcase. Otherwise, they steal the attention of actors and often not for something important, but for the simple brightness and glimpses.

I’m afraid this night was one such example. It was bright, yet it wasn’t thoughtful, and in some scenes, the repeating pattern was so annoying that this unpleasant feeling constantly returned me to the action on stage (was that the intention?).

For the Reason Unknown?

That performance wasn’t easy. My curiosity made me stay, and yet there were notably fewer people who returned to the second — shorter — part of the performance. On paper, this should have been a success, but the formula was tricky and it all eventually looked undercooked. 

I had so many questions, leaving the theater that night. 

Could it be that no one noticed or cared that the amazing Dietrich Henschel wasn’t heard at all? 

Why didn’t they give more rehearsal time to Daniel Brenna, who can masterfully sing Siegfried, but couldn’t keep his Mephistopheles alive? 

Why were the soloists of the choir brilliant, but the group parts were just raw? 

Could the orchestra have more rehearsals of such difficult (and obviously new for most of the musicians) music so they could better follow the late-romantic reading by Meister?

One could just write that the soloists were bad, the choir was good in some parts, and the conductor gave a good reading (or a bad one). And then we can just let “Doktor Faust” go. But I don’t think that praising or blaming any of these components would lead us to the core understanding. I’m positive, these problems are connected.

Then, I remembered the old problems at the Florentine theatre, when workers massively reported that the rehearsal time wasn’t paid properly. And though today, I haven’t heard anything directly on this matter, the recent reports showed numerous unfair decisions and directions from the management towards the artists and stage workers. 

And, I suppose, the productions like “Doktor Faust” are very illustrative examples to show the Florentine management’s attitude. It’s not a popular piece, moreover it’s in German with no “big stars” in the cast, no big budget, not only for the set design and star singers but to pay the ensemble workers’ time — and therefore, the amount of effort, and therefore the quality goes down accordingly. 

But the question is actually not if it is any fair. The question is why society is so loudly concerned about the money that the Superintendent of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Alexander Pereira spent in his signature way to collect funds for the theatre, and nobody at all worries about how this money will be spent. 

The money of Fondazione Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is meant for art. But did you see any concern for that in La Nazione, La Repubblica, maybe RAI1 was talking about that? Not at all. We don’t care. 

In this case, I think, we deserved the performance that should have been extraordinary, but in fact, was so unbearable that some people couldn’t wait to leave.


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