Arrigo Boioto Mephistopheles
Alistair Miles (Mephistopheles), David Rendall (Faust), Leigh Melrose
(Wagner/Nereus), Susan Patterson (Margaretha/Helen of Troy), Christine Rice
Oliver von Dohnányi (conductor), Ian Judge (director)
Like Goethe's Faust, Boioto's Mephistopheles needs so much
spectacle that at times it seems unstageable. It has not, in fact, been
staged in the UK since the 1950s. But it's one of the most entertaining and
witty of nineteenth-century Italian operas, and this new production (which
also appears in August at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires) was
The problem of the spectacle -- the prologue needs the entire heavenly host
-- was solved by a simple set and ingenious use of the auditorium space,
lighting, colour and grouping of the performers, in West End musical style.
The set, designed by John Gunter, who also designed the National Theatre's
Guys and Dolls, consisted of two red walls that met at a right angle
at the back of the stage. Doors and windows opened in them as required. The
stage extended over the orchestra, with a step down (from which little
devils could emerge between piles of books) to create a substage at the
The heavenly decor was decidedly Italian Catholic kitsch: a gold and ivory
emblem of the Trinity and angels inw white with gold wings and halos.
Almost everything else was red and black, to imply that it belonged to the
devil. The townsfolk wore thrift-shop retro clothes, the witches on the
Brocken wore red robes and pointed hats. The hems of the angels' robes were
also red, and they wore rose-tinted spectacles and carried roses,
suggesting that the whole thing was a fantasy directed by Mephistopheles.
He first appeared asleep in a red spot in the royal box, in evening dress,
and climbed down ladder to the stage. Helen, Pantalis and the Greek chorus
were dressed as for Les Troyens, and Faust and Mephistopheles
watched the classical Walpurgis night from the box. (It turned out to be a
hallucination. Faust was returned to Margarethe's prison at the end.)
The general style of the performances (though not the singing) was also
music-theatre, a bit camp, but energetic and engaging.
Mephistopheles is one of the few "serious" nineteenth-century operas
that could be said to be fun, and Ian Judge brought out plenty of it. The
only concept seemed to be that everyone was putting on a performance.
Except perhaps with Margarethe, this is entirely justified by Goethe's
play, and by the way Boioto adapted the key passages of Goethe as operatic
set-pieces, for example, setting Faust's final aspiration to rule a
peaceful world (to see "a free people in a free land" in Goethe) as an
Italian patriotic hymn. The production also captured the itchiness of
Goethe's Germanic sprites with a group of four athletic little devils who
were on stage almost all the time, in a heap or turning somersaults.
Susan Patterson sang powerfully, and was wide-eyed as Margarethe and
suitably theatrical as Helen. Christine Rice was a comic Martha, straight
out of a music hall. She has a fine, strong mezzo voice. David Rendall
seemed a little rough at times, and wasn't really a romantic hero, but his
diction was excellent, and he got Faust's laddishness and vanity spot on.
Alistair Miles, a svelter version of His Excellency in Heaven Can
Wait, looked imposing and struck some grand theatrical poses but
somehow didn't quite have the comic timing required. Surprisingly, his
voice didn't always carry over the orchestra either, though he has exactly
the right sinister bass tones and sang with great bravura at times.
The chorus was very funny as a bumptious heavenly host, especially the
boys' choir, and sang with spirit throughout. The orchestra was also
energetic rather than refined, but this isn't a delicate opera. In this
production, Mephistopheles entirely plausibly reads a lads' magazine during
the classical ballet. It's splendid to have him back in London again.