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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele (1868)
Text by the composer
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass) - Mephistofele
Ramón Vargas (tenor) - Faust
Patricia Racette (soprano) - Margherita/Elena
Erin Johnson (alto) - Marta
Chuanyue Wang (tenor) - Wagner/Nereo
Renée Rapier (alto) - Pantalis
San Francisco Opera Dance Corps
San Francisco Chorus/Ian Robertson
San Francisco Opera Orchestra/Nicola Luisotti
Robert Carsen (producer)
rec. live, San Francisco Opera, October 2013
Programme notes: English, French, German included
Region Code: 0 (worldwide); NTSC 16:9
Titles in English, French, German, Italian, Korean
EUROARTS 2059678 [2 DVDs: 145:00]

Arrigo Boito is one of those composers whose fame rests on only one or two works, in his case the opera Mefistofele and the incomplete Nerone - on which he worked for over forty years. Mefistofele was completed when the composer was 26 years old. He had hardly produced anything previously. Nevertheless the premiere in Milan had stirred great interest in advance, especially of the negative variety, among advocates of “pure” Italian opera. The opening Prologue in Heaven, the most radical section of the opera, was actually well-received, but much of the rest was booed. The second performance was spread over two nights; the opera was in this version five and a half hours long. It fared no better - being found too “symphonic” and “futurist”. The police had to intervene and the remaining performances were cancelled.

Boito burnt most of the score and proceeded to create a new opera. This version comprises the Prologue and Epilogue in Heaven, the parts familiar from Gounod’s opera, the Witch’s Sabbath with its famous “Ecco il Mondo”, and the classical Sabbath with Helen of Troy. The revision took him seven years, but at its premiere in Bologna in 1875, it was a triumphant success and was quickly heard in numerous other countries. It has never been off the boards since.

In its final version Mefistofele inevitably invites comparison with Gounod’s and Berlioz’s works on the same theme. It has been said that Gounod set Goethe’s Faust to music while Boito wrote music for Goethe’s Faust. While both operas are inevitably episodic, as is Berlioz’s work, Boito seems more concerned with the overall breadth of Goethe’s poem, and with the conflict of good and evil, rather than the actual story of what happens to Faust.

Although these discs contain a performance from San Francisco from 2013, the production dates back to the 1980s and has been seen in other cities. It holds up well dramatically, although some of the scenic choices may seem strange. The Easter Sunday section of Act I is a little distracting with Faust and Wagner in nineteenth century dress while other characters seem to have wandered in from Versailles in the 18th century and others seem loyal to the actual medieval setting of the opera. On the other hand the slanted staging of the Garden Scene in Act 2 is highly effective as is the classical Sabbath in Act 4. The staging in Heaven at the beginning and end of the opera will not please everyone but is an imaginative response to the scenic problems inherent in Goethe’s poem.

Nicola Luisotti leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra competently but without much excitement. The Orchestra itself plays magnificently, especially the woodwinds. They provide the requisite “big” sound in the scenes in Heaven and in the Witch’s Sabbath, but really shine in the delicate solos and ensembles in other sections. Even more impressive is the Opera Chorus, both musically and dramatically. Under Ian Robertson they lend a refinement to their playing that stands out even from other performances of this opera I have experienced. Like the orchestra they are powerful in the big choral numbers but lend true delicacy in other scenes such as the Easter Sunday section and the Classical Sabbath.

Both sound quality and filming in these discs is unfortunately rather distant and this is especially unfortunate in the solos and small ensembles, although it doesn’t seem to hurt the orchestral playing. There are none of the extras that many have come to expect from opera DVDs.

In the title role Ildar Abdrazakov is sufficiently imposing and yet imparts a slight sense of foreboding that, as always, he will lose Faust’s soul in the end. He is almost too cynical in the Prologue in Heaven but sufficiently menacing and sepulchral in “Son lo spirito …” His duet with Faust at the end of Act 1 is first rate. He is again almost too cynical in the scenes with Margherita, but this quality serves him well in the Witch’s Sabbath section. His singing here is powerful without being strained and he never lets the chorus overwhelm him. His voice shows some signs of strain by Act 4, but he is both powerful and plaintive in the Epilogue when he realizes that once again he has lost out to the forces of good.

Ramón Vargas is in great voice here. In “Dimmi se creddi” in Act 2 he is both touching and forthright and in most of his scenes with Patricia Racette as Margherita in Act 3 he is equally effective. He also holds his own in his duets with Abdrazakov. However, his natural amiability sometimes comes through in his portrayal of Faust and in such scenes as the Witch’s Sabbath he seems more genial than horrified. However, in the Epilogue he is very convincing as he resists the efforts of Mefistofele to distract him from his view of the Ideal.

Patricia Racette is in some ways the star of this performance. She is extremely effective as the innocent Margherita in Act 2 but almost harrowing as the betrayed Margherita of Act 3, resisting in the latter the Director’s effort to exaggerate the Act’s inherent drama. Unfortunately she is a little less dramatically convincing as Elena, but her singing leaves nothing to be desired. In the lesser roles Chuanyue Wang is a serviceable Wagner and Renée Rapier ably conveys Pantalis’ loyalty to Elena.

There are only two competing DVDs of Mefistofele presently available. One is, interesting enough, a filming of the same San Francisco Opera production as in these discs, but dating from 1991, featuring Samuel Ramey as Mefistofele [review]. Ramey was perhaps the Mefistofele of his generation and is somewhat more forceful than Abdrazakov. The other is a 2008 version from the Teatro Massimo in Palermo with Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role [review]. The latter is a fine performance musically but somewhat disappointing scenically. Neither of the two earlier releases can be dismissed but these new discs, overall, are their equal and, consequently, merit high praise.

William Kreindler


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