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Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele
Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele), Ramón Vargas (Faust), Patricia Racette (Margherita), Chuanyue Wang (Wagner, Nereo), Erin Johnson (Marta), Renée Rapier (Pantalis), Brook Broughton (Eve), Luke Lazzaro (Adam), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Dance Corps, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), Ian Robertson (chorus master), Alphonse Poulin (choreographer), Robert Carsen (director), Michael Levine (set and costume designer), Gary Marder (lighting designer), Frank Zamacona (director for the screen)
Recorded live at the San Francisco Opera (October 2013) – 148’48
2 DVDs EuroArts 2059678 – Subtitles in English, Italian, French, German and Japanese – Notes in English, German and French

This production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele has quite the world-striding history in its own right. It was first performed in Geneva in 1986, then at the co-producing San Francisco Opera in 1988. Since then it has been seen in many opera houses - for example at the Met (1999-2000). According to the SFO website, it is currently co-owned by them and the Metropolitan Opera. In his booklet note director Robert Carsen expresses a degree of amazement that the production has lasted so long. (It was also the first of many collaborations between Carsen and designer Michael Levine.)

It certainly is a huge theatrical statement fully in keeping with Boito’s over-reaching aim of translating Goethe’s philosophical drama into opera. Earlier Robert Schumann had composed an oratorio Scenes from Goethe’s Faust which could well be the title of Boito’s treatment (or anyone’s for that matter). The resulting work has been criticized for being episodic - but that is all it could be, given the source. The challenge is to make each of the scenes vivid in its own right, and this Carsen and his team have accomplished.

The opening prologue (and the closing scene) is in heaven, no less, which is displayed as a sumptuous theatre. (How wonderful if true!) Here we see the first of Michael Levine’s stunning sets and costumes. (It’s a good thing the production has so many performances to help pay off the costs of the costumes alone.) Conductor Nicola Luisotti opens with a huge, lunging downbeat and then builds from there. The massed pageantry builds to a huge, soaring climax. The SFO chorus when dispersed upstage and behind a scrim tends to lag a bit and sag off tune. But for the final climax, and in the later Walpurgis scene (despite its hectic action) they are well focused.

The opening scene of the opera proper takes place on Easter Sunday staged as a hectic carnival with costumes that bring to mind the work of Leon Bakst and other Ballets Russes artists. In contrast to the heavenly vision this is earthy indeed, as we see players perform Adam and Eve discovering the delights of carnal sin.

On the package is the statement “This production contains real and simulated nudity.” Whether that is a warning or an enticement, both types of nudity are on display in the Walpurgis Night scene.

Scenes devoid of racy content still manage to present piquant comment on the stage action, as in the garden scene when Faust woes Margherita and Mefistofele woos (or is wooed by) Marta (Erin Johnson, spilling out of her costume), the little patch of green becomes a carousel. Hard to describe - it must be seen. The exaggerated theatrics of the Classical Walpurgis Night scene (with Racette as Elena - or Helen of Troy) are wonderfully supported by the sumptuous costumes.

Dominating the proceedings (as well he should) is Aldar Abdrazakov in the title role. Commanding in voice and physique, he seems to be channeling the roguish charm of Douglas Fairbanks. Ramón Vargas uses his attractive voice to maximum expressive extent. It must be noted that not every singer benefits from the probing, illusion-destroying close-ups that are an inevitable part of filmed/taped opera and I am afraid Mr Vargas is one who does not. A singer who is perfectly acceptable when seen across the orchestra pit might look unfocussed in close-up, or the workings of the facial muscles can be distracting - there are so many pitfalls (not every singer has the poise and photogenic qualities of Renée Fleming). For example, Patricia Racette works hard as she emotes her role’s showcase aria ”Altra notte infondo al mare”. Some might decide she is having a struggle with the aria whereas I think she is trying to project the drama of the situation into the huge auditorium. It’s a tough job to project voice and feeling into a large theatre, but having also to possess the intimate qualities of a film actor is an almost unreasonable demand.

At any rate, both soprano and tenor are up to the mark, especially in the duets, “Lontano, lontano...” (Faust with Margherita) and “Ah! Amore! Misterio celeste, profondo!” (Faust and Elena).

This is the second time the SFO has released a visual record of a performance of this production. In 1989 performances were taped for television for subsequent broadcast and then a VHS release. Singers were Samuel Ramey in the title role, with Gabriella Benackova as Margherita and Dennis O’Neill as Faust.

One note about the package cover (above): as handsome as it is, it gives no hint of the visual delights to be found in the performance, surely a strong selling point for this production. (Very attractive booklet, however.)

Disc 2 contains trailers for four other recent issues: Porgy and Bess, Lucrezia Borgia, and Moby-Dick all from San Francisco Opera, and Die Meistersinger from the Salzburg Festival of 2013.

Michael Johnson




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