Doctor Faust synopsis
Music by Ferruccio Busoni
Libretto by the composer
First performed: 1925
Easter Sunday. The opera opens- as it is also to close – with bells.
Faust works alone in his study. Wagner, his amanuensis, announces three students from Cracow. Faust rails against the constant interruption to his work but agrees to see them when he hears that they bring a book: Clavis Astartis Magica – the key to the magic of Astarte, a Semitic goddess of the moon. They present the book, and vanish.
Armed with the vital book, Faust performs the magic ritual. Six spirits manifest themselves, and Faust questions the first five in turn but none measure up to his requirements. He is on the point of abandoning his quest when the voice of the last spirit is heard: "I am as swift as are the thoughts of men." It is Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles and Faust discuss their contract. Mephistopheles plays on the fact that Faust's relations with the outside world have already broken down: he is besieged by creditors; the Church suspects him; he is being pursued by "the brother" – ie the brother of Gretchen, whose seduction and suicide occurred before the intervention of the Devil. Faust orders Mephistopheles to murder the bailiffs knocking at the door. As Mephistopheles bids Faust to sign the contract, however, the unseen congregation begins the Credo. Despite Faust's memories of childhood innocence, it is Mephistopheles who triumphs and Faust signs the contract. Gretchen's brother kneels by her body, praying for vengeance. Mephistopheles tells Faust that he must kill the brother. Faust tries to avoid this but finally accepts with the words: "He drags out his life in useless grief; I am a man of deeds." Mephistopheles poses as a friar, and invites the brother to make his confession – before his certain death. While the brother struggles to identify and understand this macabre messenger, soldiers rush in and hack him down, apparently in revenge for some earlier killing – doubtless arranged by Mephistopheles.
Faust's giddy progress as a phenomenal magician – in the service of the Devil – leads him to...
...the Ducal Court at Parma. Faust has been invited to perform at the Duke of Parma's lengthy wedding celebrations. When Faust sees the Duchess, however, he senses in her a being with whom he can have a relationship as an equal. His magic show, which consists of a series of tableaux vivants of Solomon and the and the Queen of Sheba, Samson and Delilah, and finally Salome and John the Baptist, becomes a thinly disguised way both of conveying his message of passion and of testing the strength of the Duchess's ability to break the bonds of convention. The Duke is naturally incensed, and breaks off the show; although Mephistopheles urges Faust to leave, he refuses to go without the Duchess. The Duchess returns, equally unable to forget her encounter with Faust, and they leave together. Mephistopheles uses the Duke's confusion to embroil the State of Parma in a catastrophic clash with neighboring states: although he has temporarily lost control of Faust, he turns the situation to his malicious advantage.
Philosophers dispute earnestly while their students form bellicose gangs. Even Faust remarks, extolling wine, women and song, provoke an ugly clash between Catholics and Protestants. When calm is restored, Faust for a moment recalls his brief but deep attachment to the Duchess. Mephistopheles responds by appearing as a messenger with the Duchess's dead baby. He explains himself in a brutally cynical ballad describing Faust's relationship with the Duchess, and rams home the point by showing that even the baby was unreal: it was made of straw, and he burns it. Instead Mephistopheles now offers Faust the ultimate idealized distraction in the form of Helen of Troy. Faust is greatly excited by the vision of perfect beauty, yet he is again betrayed, and draws the conclusion that: "Mankind is not yet ready for perfection. For man should not strive to exceed his own measure, but seek to do such good as to him is granted." The three students from Cracow return to claim the book: Faust realizes with joy that his term is up.
As Faust's last hour nears, Hell seems to possess the earth: The night-watchmen sing with the voice of Mephistopheles; the students celebrate the triumph of unreason as Wagner is elected professor in Faust's place. In a desperate bid for redemption, Faust seeks an opportunity to perform one good deed. He approaches an old beggar-woman, only to recognize the Duchess of Parma. She gives him the real dead baby, saying that in it lies his salvation. When Faust appeals to God for help, he sees that the brother – the spirit of revenge – possess the Church, and he is turned away. His past rises up to haunt him, and he tries to pray, but when he turns to the Crucifix, the figure on the cross is that of Helen. Faust realizes that his salvation lies in the future, as he intimated in the previous scene: "He alone is happy who looks at his future." Rejecting both God and Devil, he turns at last to the product of his one truly human relationship – the child of the Duchess of Parma. He re-enacts the magic ceremony, and this time it is not Mephistopheles who is born out of him, but the child: a vulnerable yet optimistic human figure who strides away into the night.
Back to full list
Already a member?
Sign in now to access the members only area
Not a member?
Join now to receive priority booking, invitations to dress rehearsals and members-only events and much more.