By Phil Hall | March 4, 2008

Many music scholars consider Ferruccio Busoni’s 1925 “Doktor Faust” to be among the finest operas of the 20th century. But that argument is not bolstered by this dismally dull 2006 production from the Zurich Opera.

The story is more than a little familiar – that wacky old Faust gets himself into the worst possible bargain imaginable and faces an eternity to rue to his bad judgment. However, the well-worn tale receives a surprisingly stagnant retelling, due in large part to director Klaus Michael Grüber’s insistence on staging the proceedings with the speed and urgency of a George Romero zombie attack. Rarely has a production, even by operatic standards, been so stagnant and immobile as this offering.

Thomas Hampson’s Faust tries to compensate for the stolid proceedings by rolling his eyes and frowning in the manner of a Mack Sennett villain. Gregory Kunde’s Mephistopheles never bothers to signal any degree of ocular or eyebrow acting, achieving a near-motionless visage for too much of his stage time.

The production attempts to distract from its lack of motion with anachronistic costume and production design – Faust is first seen luxuriating in a Chinese-style silk robe and studying a bonsai tree while the students from Krakow arrive in cartoonish outfits that would appropriate for the Joker’s henchmen on the campy TV series “Batman.” Busoni’s original composition barely survives, thanks to a subtle arrangement via conductor Philippe Jordan, whose baton actions offer the only sign of life here.

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