Goethe later claimed that the overwhelming musical experience of his youth (he was 14) was hearing the six-year-old Mozart play in Frankfurt in 1763 on one of his many tours (this is one of those encounters one would really liked to have somehow witnessed…like Schoenberg and Gershwin playing tennis together—with Harpo Marx kibitzing on the sidelines—in Hollywood in the 1940s). His admiration, even adoration, of Mozart lasted to his death some 60 years later. Goethe, Germany’s most famous poet and playwright, was a formidable polymath (he wrote epic and lyric poetry, prose and verse drama; memoirs, criticism, treatises on botany, anatomy and color; and four novels). His direct connection to music and opera is no less impressive. He asked Gluck to set some of his poetry, who declined. He wrote libretti; excerpts from one—a dramaturgically dense, even turgid, sequel to The Magic Flute—was performed at a BLO Signature Series event a few years ago. He was director of the Hoftheater in Weimar from 1791 to 1817 and mounted productions by an astounding variety of composers, including Gluck, Beethoven, Paisello, Cimarosa, Cherubibi, Boildieu, Spontini, and others. He particularly championed Mozart when it was not entirely fashionable. During his directorship, Mozart was performed on no fewer than 310 evenings—Figaro 20 times, Abduction 49, Don Giovanni 68, and Flute 82.
His play Faust (in two parts and gargantuan in ambition and scale) has been the inspiration for numerous musical works (including those by Wagner, Lizst, and Schumann) and several operas. Perhaps the most truly Goethean in feeling is Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Technically not an opera (Berlioz called it a “légende dramatique”), it premiered in 1846. The Metropolitan Opera premiered it in concert in 1896, and a fully staged version was given there in 2008, directed by Robert Lepage (of the notorious Met Ring Cycle). Terry Gilliam made his English National Opera directorial debut with a production of it in 2011, and this trailer shows some of the intriguing ideas that his production contained.
Gounod’s opera Faust is certainly the most well-known variant of the Goethe play. (I’m sure he would have loathed it for its sentimentality and trivialization of his cosmic mythology…and Germans are still dismissive of it even today, and bill it as it Marguerite when it plays there.) It was a huge international success, after a less-than-successful premiere in 1859. It opened the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883 and is the eighth most frequently performed opera there, with 747 performances. Since it is a truth frequently noted that “the Devil always gets the best lines,” here is Mephistopheles in full cry.
From Arrigo Boito’s only completed opera (Mefistofele, 1868), here is a boldly extravagant take on Goethe.
The most direct setting of a Goethe text (although not an opera, of course) is the Eighth Symphony (the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”) of Gustav Mahler (1910). It uses the closing section of Goethe’s Faust, Part II.
There are several French operatic settings of Goethe. Of course, Werther, but also Ambroise Thomas’ 1866 work, Mignon (of modest but undeniable charm), based loosely on the Goethe novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. This opera too ran into Franco-German sensibility issues—Thomas had to write a version which ended tragically…this attempt still failed to appease the German public and was withdrawn. Its most famous aria is “Connais-tu le pays,” here sung in concert by Marilyn Horne at her most playful.
More intellectually acceptable (perhaps) were the many various lieder/song versions of Goethe, perhaps most notably the Hugo Wolf setting of “Kennst du das Land.”
And to end on a lighter note (and a nod to Werther’s successor in the BLO Season, The Merry Widow) here is Johann Strauss’ 1874 waltz “Wo die Zitronen blühen,” from the same passage in Goethe’s novel.