Summary for the Busy Executive: Operatic Punch.
Excepting the Fantasia contrappuntistica and the works of Bach-Busoni, I've never cared for the instrumental works of Ferruccio Busoni, despite the considerable fascinations of that musical mind. The piano concerto seems to me more interesting in the forces it calls for, rather than in the music those forces actually get to play. His "Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music" essentially collects and iterates aesthetic ideas that had been around since at least the 18th century. It is almost, but not quite, old news by the time he sets it down. His teaching basically consisted of conversations in general, rather than offering specific help (he took, after all, only advanced students). Still, it's hard to say what his pupils got from him.
And yet . . . Busoni remains an incredibly influential figure. His hold on the modernists was fairly strong, probably as much by his dedication to the art and the force of his personality as by his compositions. For me, both the violin and the piano concerti seem uncomfortably stuck in a late 19th-century idiom, without the vision to see a "next step." They show immense craft, but their energy seems synthetic, rather than the result of a direct translation of personality. I always get the picture of watching current pass through a pair of frog's legs, rather than a living frog. They come across as inhibited, suffering from an excess of Good Taste. I doubt, for example, that after hearing any movement of the violin concerto, one would guess the composer. On the other hand, Rachmaninoff - a composer of less intellect than Busoni - not only feels comfortable with late nineteenth-century music, he manages to turn his basic Russian Romantic idiom to modernist uses. Certainly Busoni's violin concerto has little, if anything, in common with his pupil Kurt Weill's.
Given this picture of Busoni, you can't imagine how completely his operas knocked me over. Doktor Faust and the two here represent Busoni the master. Here we find a full expression of an eccentric yet incisive musical mind - very much what we find in the Fantasia, as a matter of fact - manic energy applied this time to the progress of the drama, rather than (in the Fantasia) to the elaboration of counterpoint. Busoni wrote his operas late, when he was past fifty (he died in his fifties). They are gems. One can see the practical reasons for the neglect of Arlecchino and Turandot, however. Turandot competes with a recognized masterpiece. Both operas are short, and even together, they don't quite constitute a full evening in the theater. They deal with drama of a very sophisticated sort, not often found in American opera houses, at any rate. There's an idealism in the power of the theater to rouse the intellect, as opposed to watching a vocal Olympics or a fashion show, which seems to rule in the States.
Busoni wrote his own libretti, in German, basing Turandot of course on the Gozzi original (the basis of the Puccini opera; Busoni, however, had gotten there first). Arlecchino comes across as a graft of Till Eulenspiegel and Ubu Roi. Apparently the harlequin figure - a representative of chaos or, better, topsy-turvy moral order - greatly attracted Busoni, since there's also an earlier Rondo arlecchinesco (I believe also known as Harlekins Reigen) for orchestra and (briefly) tenor. The little opera seems an attempt to revive the commedia dell' arte - old slapstick situations, but with a cynical moral twist. Vice triumphs here. Arlecchino goes off with the tailor's wife, while his own abandoned wife, Colombina, takes up with a nobleman, and the tailor is lost in the ecstasy of reading Dante (ironically enough, the Francesca da Rimini episode in the Inferno). All are happy, but there's a bitter taste left behind, not unlike the irony-laced "triumphs" in Brecht. Musically striking is Busoni's handling of the winds, especially in fast figures designed to hustle the plot along, which Kurt Weill lifts almost verbatim for the same reason in his stage works. But Weill's music burns, while Busoni's delights.
To those familiar with the Puccini opera, Busoni's version will come as a bit of a shock. Puccini's music emphasizes the splendor of the Emperor's court and the passions of Calaf and Liù. Busoni's depicts the fairy-tale atmosphere and the rapid plot development of the Gozzi original. Liù, of course, is a Puccini invention. Her counterpart in Busoni is Adelma, a woman scorned who knows Kalaf's name and betrays it to Turandot in exchange for her freedom. Puccini's work ultimately probes the psyche more than Busoni's, especially in the delineation of Turandot herself. Busoni's Turandot comes across as stubborn and petulant (with doubts). Puccini's is truly terrifying and terrifyingly passionate in her hate and love. It's as if you were to meet a fairy-tale witch in real life - the mystery that clings to her throughout the opera scares you as much as her courtship habits. Still, Busoni intrigues you with the distance at which he presents the characters. The scale lines up more with Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio - stock characters made interesting by what they sing. The dramatic pleasures are more intellectual, less visceral than in Puccini. However, the score overflows with interesting, vivacious music. The opening bears a startling resemblance to interludes in Weill's Mahagonny. There's a brilliant setting of "Greensleeves" (how Busoni knew the tune I have no idea) as music of the Chinese court. For me, the most powerful moment comes when Kalaf looks on Turandot's picture for the first time. One feels the cold, awful power of enchantment, as opposed to the heat of Puccini's hero.
The voices are good enough, and the acting much better than what one normally encounters at the opera or in recording. Kent Nagano's reading honors Busoni, becoming a persuasive advocate indeed for this misunderstood composer. His performance moves, full of sprightly rhythms and crisp textures. With his penchant for operatic byways, I'd look forward to his Doktor Faust or even a series on Kurt Weill, Busoni's operatic heir.
The sound is fine. The orchestra sounds clear.
Copyright © 1998 by Steve Schwartz.
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