George Bernard Shaw
got there some time before me in summing up exactly my own feelings
about Boito as a composer, and about Mefistofele in particular:
it’s an example what can be achieved “in the operatic field
by an excellent man of letters without actual musical talent
but with ten times more taste and education than a musician
of just ordinary extraordinariness”. Alright – perhaps ignore
the last bit as a typical bit of GBS overstatement, but you
get the picture. Boito’s chief weaknesses as an opera composer
are some loose handling of the plot and an inability to develop
his musical material, which alas shows itself in both the voices
and orchestra. Verdi himself commented that he missed “spontaneity
and melody” in the work – two factors that were never found
lacking in his own works.
All this notwithstanding,
there is a place for Mefistofele and perhaps enough reason
to hear it occasionally. But does this recording adequately
stand up to the task? I don’t think so – and there are several
reasons for this.
From the opening
Largo there is a sense of a rather cavernous acoustic plaguing
proceedings – distant trumpets and adequately caught strings
fight against raging thunder effects that seem places not a
foot away from the left channel microphone. Consequently, you
are left juggling the volume between what makes listening sufficiently
audible and comfortable. Things are exacerbated with the entry
of the chorus. This surely must be a live or ‘as live’ performance
– although there is no applause or audience interruption to
give the fact away: the choral ending to the prologue sounds
so rough, pushed and ill-focused that I can’t imagine any producer
anywhere sanctioning it for commercial release.
The soloists also
immediately announce that this is far from an Italian cast at
work. I’ve heard worse Italian pronunciation – but more often
than not the singers suffer from one minute being close to and
then away from the microphones – so the text lapses towards
indistinctness. Of course the opera is a relative rarity in
that it is built around a star bass (or bass-baritone) in the
title role. Nicola Ghiuselev undoubtedly fulfilled the star
bass criterion, having both the presence and the vocal ability
to bring the role easily within his grasp – but even this is
not enough were he to be placed beside a true Italian bass such
as Ezio Pinza. Comparing the two in the Act I aria “Son lo spirito
che nega”, Pinza brings a suavity to the role that makes Mefistofele
more terrifying and Faust’s agreement to the pact not only more
inevitable but more dramatically believable too.
tenor serves Faust in a well focused though slightly nasal way,
in common with many Eastern European tenors – but there is little
in it that will cause undue offence, and much the same can be
said for Mincho Popov in the small role of Wagner. Whilst I’m
on small roles, why does the booklet or case not list the singers
taking the roles of Marta, Panatalis and Nerčo?
In productions and
on recordings too the soprano roles of Margherita and Elena
are often taken by the same singer: not so here. Stefka Evstatieva’s
Margherita has the more extensive part and also the better music,
even if one aria forms the basis of that view (“L’altra notte
in fondo al mare”, Act III). She copes valiantly with it shading
down to a well focused pianissimo when needed. Rumjana Bareva
as Elena hardly has a character to get into, confined as she
is to the 24 minutes of Act IV, but the voice is not well caught
generally even if the high notes are thrown out with feeling.
Overall I wished Evstatieva had taken on both roles.
Marinov keeps moving
reasonably commendably without much individuality, but there’s
little he can do to hide Boito’s shortcomings. Those of the
accompanying notes however are another matter – barely a paragraph
on the work, followed by a synopsis: a poor show when more could
have been done.
for a complete recording should look elsewhere, and there are
a few to choose from. I’d actually be tempted to skip them all
and opt for the few highlights the work contains on one or two
‘recital’ discs – that way at least Boito still retains some
dignity as a composer.