The chance to hear Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust (Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, 1844-53) live in concert was one of the absolute highlights of this year’s Helsinki Festival.
Musically, Schumann’s Faust-Szenen is among the most compelling settings of the Goethe classic, alongside Hector Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust, 1845-46). Yet it is also a challenging one, in many ways.
Scored for orchestra, large chorus and children’s choir, and featuring, with doublings, a minimum of seven vocal soloists, Faust-Szenen is a hard thing to muster. In addition, due to its episodic nature, the piece calls for either an audience acquainted with their Goethe or some kind of context, provided by staging.
Even though Faust-Szenen is not a stage piece per se, staged productions are fairly common practice among its contemporary performances. The Helsinki Festival production was an interesting combination of stage and film, which worked very well for the piece.
Performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu, as well as Tapiola Chamber Choir, EMO Ensemble and Cantores Minores, the score was in good hands. No less than ten vocal soloist were featured, including Arttu Kataja as Faust, Soile Isokoski as Gretchen and Markus Suihkonen as Mephistopheles, among others.
Alongside singers, the key roles were also performed by actors onstage and in the film. The cast included Hannu Kivioja as Faust, Sanna-Kaisa Palo as Mephistopheles and Alice Polacenko as Gretchen, to name just a few.
Faust-Szenen is cast into three parts. For Schumann, composing the oratorio, as he originally called it, took almost ten years. Each of the parts was premiered separately, and there was no complete performance of Faust-Szenen in Schumann’s lifetime.
Comprising of an overture and thirteen musical numbers, the score towers somewhere between and opera and an oratorio. In somewhat simplified terms, one could argue, that Faust-Szenen was begun as an opera and completed as an oratorio.
The first two parts, each containing three scenes, depict Faust’s journey through the Gretchen tragedy into wealth and prosperity and, eventually to his death. The third part reflects the celestial vision of Faust’s transfiguration.
A dramatic overture par excellence launches Faust-Szenen. The moods and twists of Goethe’s story are wholeheartedly embraced in the music. Lintu and the FRSO provided the audience with a mini-drama par excellence with their detailed and spirited performance of the overture.
The love affair between Faust and Gretchen, devised by Mephistopheles, is portrayed in the Garden Scene, a charming operatic scena, ravishingly performed.
The mood darkens in the next two scenes, Gretchen before an Image of the Mater Dolorosa and In the Church, as the shadows of sorrow, sin and death keep haunting Gretchen. Gorgeously performed by the chorus, the Church Scene went zenith with the ominous rendition of the Dies irae, one of the most amazing choral numbers by Schumann.
The three scenes included in the second part, Sunrise, Midnight and Faust’s Death reflect Faust’s interactions with the forces of nature and the spirit world, both in its benevolent and malevolent guises. Within the enchanting, otherworldly music, one can hear echoes from another Schumann oratorio, Das Paradies und die Peri (The Paradise and the Peri, 1843).
With Lintu, the second part was performed with a formidable mix of clarity and expression, resulting in an illuminating experience. The balance between voices and the orchestra was excellent throughout.
The extended third part, The Mountain Gorge, follows Faust on his journey beyond, towards transfiguration. These very same pages by Goethe inspired also Gustav Mahler, who, more than fifty years later, would set them to music for the vast second movement of his Eighth Symphony (1906).
For Schumann, these illuminations of the beyond called for different type of music than the first two parts. Though this is not strictly sacred music, religious, or spiritual, aspects are highlighted in the score, as we move from external to the internal, from action to vision.
These visions, stupendously realized in sound by the soli, chorus and orchestra, had a compelling effect on the listener, resulting in a wonderful experience. The concluding Chorus mysticus was simply outstanding.
Directed for stage and screen by Jussi Nikkilä, the visual aspect filled the gaps left by Schumann marvellously. Parallel performances by the singers and the actors provided multiple layers for the characters, bridging together our contemporary life with that of Schumann’s time.
There was seamless interaction between the stage and the film, both firmly rooted in the music.
Performed in the postindustrial setting of the Cable Factory in Helsinki, the hall was acoustically surprisingly satisfying, making it possible to balance the solo voices, the orchestra and the chorus, seated aloft in the gallery in a meaningful way.
The makeshift seats were less satisfying, however. In addition, the air conditioning in the hall left something to de desired, resulting in a personal purgatory for some members of the audience. As for myself, these extra-musical shortcomings were soon forgotten, thanks to the top-class performance.
Still, in Chorus mysticus, I could have done without the brief ad lib. ringtone part, performed offstage.
All in all, the performance of Szenen aus Goethes Faust was a class act, ade possible by the joint efforts of the Helsinki Festival, the Finnish Broadcasting Company and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
With Lintu at the helm and the splendid cast on stage, Schumann was made proud by the performance.
Robert Schumann: Szenen aus Goethes Faust (Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, 1844-53)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Tapiola Chamber Choir, EMO Ensemble, Cantores Minores
Hannu Norjanen, Pasi Hyökki, chorus directors
Soile Isokoski, soprano
Arttu Kataja, baritone
Markus Suihkonen, bass
Maximilian Schmit, tenor
Helena Juntunen, soprano
Annastiina Tahkola, mezzo-soprano
Virva Puumala, soprano
Irina Nuutinen, mezzo-soprano
Aarne Pelkonen, baritone
Simo Mäkinen, tenor
Jussi Nikkilä, director
Raimo Uunila, photography
Ingrid Andrè, choreography
Niina Pasanen, costume design
Tapio Keskitalo, stage design
Pietu Pietiläinen, lighting design
Hannu Kivioja, Sanna-Kaisa Palo, Alise Polacenko, Tom Rejström, Saara Pakkasvirta, Miro Lopperi, Santra Juoperi, Sonja Salminen, Emil Jalagin, Sara Björkvinsdóttir, Evan, actors
Cable Factory, Helsinki, Finland
Thursday 22 August 2019, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Petri Anttila