Thomas Hampson’s portrayal of the title role in Busoni’s Doktor Faust resonates in Zurich Opera’s new production

Thomas Hampson began his 2006-07 season on September 27 in a new production of Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust at the Zurich Opera house, where he has sung every season for two decades. The opera, which was written – but not completed – by the Italian-born half-German composer between 1916 and 1924, during a period of exile in Zurich, will receive two more performances this fall at the Zurich Opera on November 12 and 19. Philippe Jordan conducts the new production, which is directed by Klaus Michael Grüber. The character of Faust is of course better known to opera lovers through the romantic French work by Charles Gounod, and from the classic German source – the two part play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. But Hampson’s portrayal has given Busoni’s rarely heard work another fresh hearing.

Mr. Hampson has made the role of Doctor Faust his own internationally, having also performed it at the Salzburg Festival and the Metropolitan Opera in a shared production. His Met performance was described by the New York Times as “unforgettable,” and the Daily News critic wrote “Thomas Hampson is in golden voice and sings heroically, also creating deep pathos in the final scene.” New York magazine’s critic was especially enthusiastic: “Thomas Hampson has never given a better performance at the Met, projecting the full expressive range of Faust’s dilemma and singing a long, demanding role with unflinching stamina and firm control.

Hampson’s reviews for the Zurich performance have been similarly enthusiastic. Switzerland’s principal newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, had special praise for Hampson:

“In this production which is more diorama than drama, attention focuses increasingly on Faust and his alter ego, Mephisto. The role of Doktor Faust seems perfectly tailored for Thomas Hampson … The powerfully virile timbre of his baritone, the natural authority of his appearance, his well-schooled articulation, all combine to portray Faust’s contradictory personality traits – he’s a searcher and a scholar, an thrill-seeking intellectual aesthete, arrogant and ashamed – a great, fascinating stage figure.”

Zurich’s Tagesanzeiger’s critic was also voluble in her acclaim for the American baritone, writing:

“Ovations for a challenging work in a musically gripping premiere. … The singing was of an exceptionally high level, especially from Thomas Hampson, ideally cast, thanks to his stage-presence and because he can allow his usually soft-grained baritone to turn rough as needed. … He portrays a character of great stature, which functions in the score and on the stage as a magnet whose poles attract and repels all the other characters in equal measure.”

And a European reporter for Bloomberg wrote:

“Busoni’s diabolical doctor proved a triumph for the big American baritone when he first tackled the massive role in Salzburg seven years ago. Zurich’s new production is built around him. Hampson towers above his fellow cast members, and puts enough dramatic passion into the part to keep the momentum going for the three-and-a-quarter-hour evening. Hampson’s take on the part has gained a world-weary fatalism since 1999; he pushes his voice past its limits, finding a vast range of eloquent shades in the process.”

Before returning to the Metropolitan Opera in early 2007, Mr. Hampson will return to Vienna to sing one of his favorite roles, the rough-hewn Mandryka in Richard Strauss’s Arabella. The production at the Vienna State Opera features Adrienne Pieczonka in the title role.

In February Hampson will sing the title role in Verdi’s political drama Simon Boccanegra for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. The production opens on February 19 and features Angela Gheorghiu and Ferruccio Furlanetto among Hampson’s co-stars. He will also portray the role in both Zurich and Vienna during the season. Also in Vienna, he’ll sing selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Vienna’s Konzerthaus (May 22).

Mr. Hampson first sang the role of Simon Boccanegra at the Vienna State Opera in 2002 and celebrated a phenomenal success. Anne Midgette of the New York Times wrote: “He gave a performance that kept one wanting to listen. And his way of investing words with meaning – the hallmark of a Lied specialist and the reason Mr. Hampson can be such a fine recitalist – made small things illuminating or suddenly poignant: a phrase would gently reach out and touch you to tears.