Boito’s Mefistofele is a rather odd work. It’s truer to the original Goethe than other operatic versions of the Faust legend which means it’s very episodic and focuses on the Faust/Mefistofele relationship rather than on Margherita. In fact she’s dead with an act and an epilogue still to go. It’s hard to categorize musically too. Some parts are rather bombastic, vulgar even, yet at other times we seem to be drifting into bel canto territory. So it’s a bit uneven; listenable enough but not very memorable.
The 2013 San Francisco Opera recording is of a revival of Robert Carsen’s production given there twenty years earlier (also still available on blu-ray and DVD) and here directed by Laurie Feldman. It was Carsen’s first professional production and the beginning of his long collaboration with Michael Levine. It’s perhaps best described as “no holds barred”. With two Walpurgis Night scenes, a carnival and two scenes set in Heaven there’s plenty to go to town on and boy, do they ever. The heavenly prologue takes place in a baroque theatre complete with trumpet playing cherubs and an entire chorus of Virgin Marys. There are fluffy clouds (and rather fluffy music) and Mefistofele in a bright red tail coat but no shirt. It’s quite tongue in cheek which actually matches the libretto at this point.
In the first scene proper we get perhaps the most garish thing ever seen on an opera stage as the denizens of wherever we are celebrate Easter Sunday with Catholic processions, stilt walkers, dancers and a fair amount of simulated sex. Things get much darker for Faust’s initial encounter with Mefistofele but soon we are in Margherita’s garden with a garish and scantily clad Marta offering her extremely obvious charms to Mefistofele while Faust and Margherita flirt more decorously.
We are back in the theatre for Walpurgis Night. It’s a bit like a fetish night at a Toronto nightclub but, oddly, with party hats (maybe Carsen is more familiar with the Toronto club scene than I ever imagined). There’s a lot of flesh; some of it nubile and some of it not so much. There are some decent dancers but there are also a disturbing number of dangly and saggy bits. This was probably less noticeable live than on DVD.
Total change of pace for Act 3 where we fast forward to Margherita in prison, actually a graveyard, awaiting execution. This is suitably grim and dark. A quick bit of Redemption and then we are off to Ilium for a gala Trojan fête, though why Priam’s folk are celebrating Walpurgis Night is a bit of a mystery. There’s some really good use of dancers here and it’s a bit more elegant than the act 2 version. Then finally we are back in heaven for Faust’s Redemption with more Virgin Marys, cherubim etc.
At the heart of the performance is Ildar Abdrazakov. He combines a wonderfully sonorous bass voice with a bass-hunk physique and just the right amount of self mockery. It’s very fine work. Ramón Vargas is also pretty good as Faust though he is rather overshadowed. I’m not so sure about Patricia Racette’s Margherita. She’s not my favourite voice at the best of times and she’s not terribly convincing as either a flirty young girl or Helen of Troy. She is though very good indeed in Act 3 which, when it comes down to it, is the bit where Margherita needs to be top drawer. Both her singing and acting here are very fine. The supporting cast is perfectly adequate. Nicola Luisotti conducts and goes for big and bold for the most part and the orchestra responds enthusiastically. Given what the chorus has to do in this production, it’s a wonder they can sing at all but they do, and very well. So musically I’d say this recording gets about as much out of this score as there is to get.
Technically the recording is really good. I watched on DVD although Blu-ray is available. Frank Zamacona’s video direction is undistracting and mercifully free of unnecessary close-ups. The picture is about as good as it gets and the sound (I listened to the DTS track but there’s Dolby surround and PCM stereo too) is demonstration quality. There’s some serious bass in this score and it’s fully captured. My listening room was rumbling. There are no extras on the two disk package but the booklet has a short note by Robert Carsen as well as a synopsis and a track listing. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Italian and Korean.
There’s not a lot of choice in video recordings of Mefistofele. Besides this one there’s an earlier capture of the same production with Sam Ramey in the title role but it’s 20 years old and can’t possibly match this one technically. There’s also a 2008 Palermo version with Ferrucio Furlanetto which Gramophone suggests is also a bit OTT dramatically. Seems if you want to see this opera, and I’m not sure you do, you need to take it dangly bits and all.