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Arrigo BOITO (1842 - 1918)
Mefistofele, Opera in 4 acts (1868) [159.00] Text by the composer.
Samuel Ramey - Mefistofele
Gabriela Benacková - Margherita, Elena
Dennis O’Neil - Faust
Judith Christin - Marta
Emily Manhart - Pantalis
Daniel Harper - Wagner
Douglas Wunsch - Nereo
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera/Maurizio Arena
Ian Robertson, chorus director; Designer, Michael Levine
Lighting designer, Thomas J. Munn; Director, Robert Carsen.
Co-produced with US PBS, Geneva Opera, & Chicago Lyric Opera, by KQED.
Notes in Deutsch, English, and Français.
DVD 9 PAL 4:3 Region code 2 & 5 Video Direction by Brian Large
PCM Stereo 2.0 Menu Languages, English, Deutsch, Français, Castellano
Recorded at the Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA, 1989
Subtitle languages: Italiano, English, Deutsch, Français, Castellano
[Region 1 NTSC version available from Kultur]
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 414 [159.00]

I have known and loved this performance for years in a VHS version, but the uneven quality of sound and fragility of the tape have marred my enjoyment. Our failing VCR decided to mangle that particular tape and I was delighted to see it made available on DVD. Here the sound and picture have been cleaned up and are presented as though this was taped last year and not last decade. Let my misfortune be a warning to the wise: replace your treasures on DVD when you get the chance. Someone has described a VHS cassette as a self-destruct mechanism; it may last along time but will eventually, inevitably, fail.

It is often commented that this opera is less popular than Gounod’s version, however, not among those I know who have heard both. The Gounod is often ranked to be the most vulgar and sentimental grand opera ever written, whereas this depiction of the title character and his machinations is fully worthy of intelligent attention. It is remarkable how Boito’s work keeps getting "discovered" and yet is never considered firmly in the repertoire. Some reviewers felt these sets were ‘minimalist’ and but I don’t know what they’re talking about. The opera itself is somewhat abstracted, hardly a Disney scenario, and the sets and staging fit the ethic perfectly.

Ramey is simply overwhelming in this role — every minute he is on stage you are captivated, ensnared. When he took his third curtain call the audience were literally screaming. But the credit for the acknowledged success of this production should distributed more evenly; everybody does an excellent job. The chorus begin as blessed souls in heaven, then they’re dancing revellers at a street fair, then writhing orgiasts in hell while the boss sings Ecco il mondo, then Helen’s retinue, then back to heaven again for the finale.

I would like to see Benacková perform Maria in Tchaikovsky’s "Mazeppa." She has a beautiful, powerful voice and is a superb actress exploring the three roles she plays in this opera: innocent maiden; condemned murderess who struggles through her madness to beg for divine mercy; and Helen of Troy, the divine courtesan who momentarily recalls the horrors of the destruction of Troy. Her final duet with Faust is worthy of Puccini, all the better for not having to sit through a Puccini opera to get to it.

Dennis O’Neil as Faust has the clear, lyrical power of Pavarotti without the latter’s tendency to wail. In addition to his beautiful voice he brings a quality of innocence to his role; at one moment he reminded me of Dudley Moore from "Bedazzled." Even at his most venial, this is a Faust you are cheering for — you want him to get away in the end, which, of course, he does.

Boito’s musical ethic is pure Liszt with an occasional nod to Rossini. When, a decade earlier, Liszt wrote his Dante Symphony he completed the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio" movements but gave up on "Paradiso" after a couple dozen bars because he felt inadequate to portray the glories of heaven in music. After hearing what he wrote, his friend Wagner seconded that opinion. Boito went triumphantly ahead where Liszt feared to proceed, to portray on a human stage the glories of heaven. This stage director took up the challenge and they succeed beyond anything I can describe here. If I tried, you’d say, oh, that won’t work. Well, it does, it does!

Immediately following the heaven scene we move into the midst of a wild colourful Bacchanalian street fair with the stage full of dancers, banners, floats, costumes. Out of this slowly emerges the solemn figure of a grey friar intoning the rosary. It is Mephistopheles, he has come for Faust, Faust knows it and falls prey. He willingly signs the contract—after reading the fine print on all four pages.

If Mephisto ever offered me the classic deal, what would I want out of the rest of this life? Not sex — I’ve done all that and it never brought me happiness. I think I’d trade eternity in Hell for the entire Westminster LP catalogue restored to DVD-Audio plus all the money I want to produce my choice of operas. After we rebuilt Memphis and Thebes we’d give the world an Aïda to remember! And, of course, Tovey’s Bride of Dionysus.

Paul Shoemaker

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