Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” one of the great operas? The Devil you say! The classic dichotomy of its subject, good and evil, angels and demons, is almost embodied in this opera, which has some lovely and lyrical music and much that is simply mediocre.
The multi-talented 19th century poet, critic and librettist (Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” and Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff”) wrote only one opera of his own and, while it has its moments (more on that in a bit), it is too long, too disjointed and, lacking a distinct musical style, borrows from everybody else – Verdi, Donizetti, perhaps even Wagner. In fact, it was a perceived similarity to Wagner that helped to doom the work’s premiere in 1868. Personally, the only imitation of Wagner I got – aside from a certain pomposity – is the excessive length. And this is the revised version. The original reportedly lasted until 1:30 in the morning. San Francisco Opera’s current revival runs only three and a half hours, including two lengthy intermissions and several scene change pauses. Be grateful.
There are some notable performances, principally that of Patricia Racette, who takes on the double roles of Margherita, the simple village lass who is seduced and abandoned by Faust in the first half of the opera, and Helen of Troy (Elena), another of Faust’s conquests, and sings the heck out of both, as well as Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang well and looked great with his shirt off, as the title character. Renowned tenor Ramón Vargas was a less-than-charismatic Faust and had pronounced trouble in his high register. His middle voice singing was good and his duets with Racette impressive.
But the real star of this show, first mounted for San Francisco Opera in 1989 in collaboration with the Geneva Opera, is Michael Levine’s design. Spruced up for this incarnation, a co-production with New York’s Met, where it will debut in 2015, it has been re-imagined by revival director Laurie Feldman and not always for the best.
Example: the Heavenly Hosts, seated in what looks like God’s opera house (nice conceit, an opera house within an opera house), sing that magnificent opening chorus wearing Carnival masks and garish gold crowns that glitter aplenty but detract from the seriousness of the subject. Mefistofele has made a wager with Heaven to bring the studious and moral Faust under the sway of his own demonic delights. And, for a while, he succeeds.
Example Number Two: an Easter Sunday fete in the town square gives us dancers, masquers, a religious procession, stilt-walkers, confetti, a float with Adam (Luke Lazzaro) and Eve (Brooke Broughton) going at it like a couple of animals in rut, and an enormous (and amusing) snake. Too much going on. If we didn’t already know the story, we’d have lost it. The opera builds to a climactic Witches’ Sabbath and, in spite of the flesh-colored leotards and prosthetic genitalia, this is the tamest Walpurgisnacht you could imagine. Adam and Eve were sexier. One last question: Why, if she lives in ancient Greece, was Helen wearing a Renaissance gown with a Victorian bustle?
But let’s talk about some more good stuff: In addition to the chorus of angels (choral work is fine throughout), Faust’s aria in his study (very Verdian); Mefistofele’s “whistling” aria and the famous “Ecco el mondo,” his aria at the Witches’ Sabbath; Margherita and Faust’s quiet duet in prison; the glorious love duet of Faust and Helen and Faust’s final song of salvation. All lovely to hear; all reasons to go to this opera. And I can give you at least three more: Patricia Racette, Patricia Racette, Patricia Racette.