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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele: Opera in a prologue, four acts and an epilogue (1868)
Mefistofele: Nicola Ghiuselev (bass)
Faust: Kaloudi Kaloudov (tenor)
Margherita: Stefka Evstatieva (soprano)
Elena: Rumjana Bareva (soprano)
Wagner: Mincho Popov (tenor)
Sofia National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ivan Marinov
Recording dates and location not provided. DDD.
CAPRICCIO 51 186 [65.26 + 75.55]


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.

Kaloudi Kaloudov’s 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.

Those desperate 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.

Evan Dickerson



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