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Outrageously entertaining

Olavinlinna Castle
07/04/2009 -  & 8, 10 July
Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele
Carlo Colombara (Mefistofele), Sergey Semishkur (Faust), Daria Masiero (Margarita), Yekaterina Shimanovich(Helen), Petro Bäckström (Wagner/Nereo), Edyta Kulczak (Marha), Jordanka Milkova (Pantalis)
Savonlinna Opera Festival Chorus, Matti Hyökki (Chorus Master), Iloinen Lapsikuoro Children's Choir and Linnanneidot Youth Choir, Leena Astikainen (Children's and Youth Choir Coach), Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra, Philippe Auguin (Conductor)
Dieter Kaegi (Director), William Orlandi (Set and Costume Designer), Pieree Wyss (Choreography), Roberto Venturi (Lighting Designer)

Daria Masiero & Sergey Semishkur (©Timo Seppäläinen/Itä-Savo)

Savonlinna’s Mefistofele is back for a second year, having received its local premiere in 2008. In his program note, director Dieter Kaegi acknowledges the work’s episodic nature and wishes that Boito’s original version could be located to see if there is any useful linking material. His way of handling its awkward structure is to place the action in a nightclub setting, with various episodes played on a stage-within-a-stage set up at the centre of the festival’s wide but shallow performing area.

For the opening scene, “the nebulous regions of outer space”, the choir is invisible behind a curtain the production team manages to hang across the proscenium-less stage. A few winged cherubs lift the curtain to make their presence known before it vanishes for a coup de théâtre shift to what ought to be a folkish Easter Sunday celebration but instead is a louche nightclub featuring entertainment that owes a lot to Die Blaue Engel, Cabaret and even Springtime for Hitler. (And perhaps we’re on a ship? - here’s an echo of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which could be the motto of this production.) It is here that the nightclub concept works extremely well, as later, during the witches’ Sabbath, the club’s patrons join what becomes an underwear party (I’m not making this up!) The third successful scene is the classical Sabbath, with Faust’s encounter with Helen of Troy. At this point Kaegi and his cohorts give us a scene that is both utterly beautiful and over-the-top ridiculous all at once.

The main character who fails to come into focus until it’s almost too late is Margarita, played by Daria Masiero. She turns out to be the nightclub’s cleaning lady and the only drab person on stage. The double courtship scene (Faust wooing Margarita, while Mefistofele woos Martha) is played on the inner stage and the hurried plot points Boito crammed into the scene don’t really come across. Masiero finally does have her moments: the love duet with Faust goes fine and then her big aria of remorse, played not in her prison cell but while she is still wiping tables.

Carlo Colombara (Mefistofele) is a genuine Italian baritone with an opulent, steady voice, but lacks the demonic side to a degree. The stage direction seems to leave him stranded in a few instances.

The most riveting voice in the production belongs to the young Russian tenor, Sergey Semishkur (who I heard sing Enée in La Prise de Troie in St. Petersburg just two weeks previous.) His attention-getting voice rings out excitingly. If he keeps on doing what he’s doing he’ll be widely in demand.

Is there a direct pipeline from the Mariinsky Young Singer’s Academy to Savonlinna? If so, they have a good thing going. Yet another of their recent trainees, Yekatarina Shimanovich, sings really beautifully in the short role of Helen. The previous evening’s Suzuki, Jordanka Milkova, is luxury casting as Pantalis.

Finland has a major choral tradition and the Savonlinna Chorus reflects this in spades. One disappointment was the placing of the large (53 members) children’s chorus offstage during the final climax of the opera - they couldn’t be heard at all from where I sat. At the same time Mefistofele was placed off the stage at the front of the audience and he got drowned out as well.

Overall, Conductor Philippe Auguin has a muscular approach to the challenging score. At some places things seemed almost to fly out of control (this adds to the excitement).

Like Boito’s work itself, this production is uneven: although interspersed with unfocused moments, it is brilliant (outrageously so) when everything comes together. It's quite the achievement for a three-performance run.

Michael Johnson



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