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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele, opera in a prologue, four acts and epilogue (1868, rev. 1881) [134.12]
C MAJOR 739304 Blu-ray [140 mins]

With this video of Boito’s Mefistofele stage director Roland Schwab has created a controversial staging which initially at a couple of points shocked me so much that I felt I needed a shower to rid me of the unpleasantness. I find the production dark and shocking at times but curiously captivating in a manner that gradually drew me in to this nightmarish world. Some will ask if it needed to be so contentious though there can be few people who have seen a full production of Mefistofele as comparison. This production will divide opinions and could be thought to take attention away from the composer and librettist Boito in favour of the director Schwab; who is incidentally making his Bayerische Staatsoper debut. After having had time to process my reaction I conclude that the balance between composer/librettist and director is about right. It’s certainly a powerful staging which makes me think long and hard about the events being portrayed, making a deep impression that will live long in the memory.

Certainly Mefistofele is an opera that one could take a lifetime waiting to see staged which I don’t believe is a true reflection of its quality. The composer Arrigo Boito is best known today as the librettist of Verdi’s last Shakespearean masterworks Otello and Falstaff. As a composer Boito is considerably less well known and Mefistofele which took twenty years from conception in 1861 to its final conclusion is his only fully completed opera. Despite its luckless première under the composer’s own baton in 1868 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan the opera was quickly withdrawn. Undeterred Boito over a thirteen year period subjected the score to sweeping revision until the now definitive version was staged in 1881 at Milan. The opera is certainly worthy of a place in the repertoire although revivals are quite rare for example the Royal Opera, London has never given a full staging only a concert performance back in 1998 at the Barbican. Surprisingly this was the first time Mefistofele had been staged at Munich. I did read that Bolito’s original 1868 production in Milan took six hours I assume with intervals, however, here on film the production lasts two and a quarter hours but without the intervals.

Boito was captivated by Goethe’s reworking of both parts of Faust the vast drama from German legend. With a theme of good versus evil the crux of the tale is Mefistofele (the devil) challenging God with a wager that he can win the soul of Faust. Boito named the opera after the character Mefistofele who drives the story.

In the absence of a directorial note I have made my own interpretations of the most significant events happening on stage. Immediately striking is the apocalyptic character of the set which looks as if it has recently suffered an explosion and in addition the culture of hedonistic behaviour on display. Creative set designer Piero Vinciguerra has chosen the inside of say a partially constructed hull of a giant submarine or possibly the fuselage of a large transport plane which is used in the manner of a hangar throughout the whole production. What looks like a metal cant-frame is kept in dim light allowing focus on the stage action with the background frequently maintained on the murky side. It doesn’t seem too many decades ago that many operas consisted of a series of static tableaux compared to Schwab’s vision which consists of almost unremitting stage action. There is so much activity happening on this huge Munich stage one has to be alert not to miss anything.

In the cheerless shadowy background of the set prowl a number of unsavoury characters, members of the Mefistofele cult, who indulge in various pleasures. Looking like a cross between Goths and Hells Angels I am reminded of the chaos of the film Mad Max III. Two or three of these individuals, cronies of the demonic Mefistofele, are a constant presence lurking in the background doing his bidding and often tempting people with sensory potions and powders.

Overall for atmosphere Michael Bauer’s lighting is darkly subdued. As an adverse consequence much of the clothing style, fabric and colour by designer Renée Listerdal are lost in the murk. This is a shame as the production photographs and the improved lighting for the bow at the end of the production reveal the impressive detail and colour of the costumes of the principals and cast.

Full of imagination Schwab creates numerous absorbing nightmarish episodes. In the prologue the stage action starts prior to the music as the audience are still taking their seats. Mefistofele and his group of cronies are lounging around in easy chairs. He puts a vinyl record on the antique gramophone with horn which stays in situ at the front of the stage for the whole opera. Located on the floor is a neon sign with red lettering which reads ‘Open’. During the Heavenly Chorus in the prologue projected onto the back screen is film footage from an airplane flying over Central Park, New York and towards one of the twin towers, and in addition an image of John Lennon appears. On stage Faust’s shirt is painted by a crony who placed his hand in scarlet paint, or was it blood, with the German word ‘Reue’ meaning remorse/repentance. Here the chorus sings Salve ReginaAve, Signor to eerie film footage of what looks like an underground tunnel containing emaciated bodies of people clinging onto steel pipe work.

Merrymaking at an Oktoberfest Bierkeller is the setting for act two. Centering on a fairground carousel brimming with numerous revelers, many in traditional Bavarian dress; the scene is clearly tailored for this Munich production. On the revolving carousel seats are a number of the group who recline like limp puppets. Mefistofele is using a shisha pipe and persuades Faust to indulge too. Off to see Margherita, Mefistofele with Faust as pillion ride a motorbike with extended front forks on a ‘highway to hell’ and thanks to back projections it looks as if they are whizzing through city streets. Both riders are in black clothing with Mefistofele wearing leathers and a German army double decal helmet fitted with horns while Faust is decked out in a long designer coat.

In act two an armchair moves across the stage seemingly of its own accord and a large rectangular clump of branches representing a garden copse, illuminated in silver, appears and hangs over the stage. The small table where Faust and Margherita are trying to have an intimate dinner suddenly explodes and sets alight throwing burning embers onto the floor which Faust calls “a magical incantation.”

The night of king Beelzebub’s ball on the Witches’ Sabbath is when the dreadful rape by Faust of the demure looking Margherita occurs, carried out in front of a crowd of onlookers. Soon a group of pregnant women lie on their backs on the floor squirming around in uncontrollable agitation. At this point I see what looks like the terrible scene of Mefistofele picking up the body of Margherita’s dead baby out of a bucket and swinging the body around, smearing blood and slime on some of the revellers. At this point an image of a foetus in the womb is projected onto the back screen. A wild bacchanal ensues as Faust is strapped in an aviator ejector seat, holding his head in torment as flames erupt from the rear of the stage. When the curtain rises for act three the red neon sign which read ‘Open’ has changed to ‘Sold Out’ which gets a chuckle from the audience. There are several little numbered displays of flowers on the floor that read in German ‘warum’ meaning ‘why’. Once again the spiteful side of Mefistofele is shown as he approaches Margherita and roughly pulls off her pearl necklace. Soon after imploring God for forgiveness to a choir of angelic voices Margherita receives salvation.

Act four seems to be set in a psychiatric or dementia unit to which Faust has been admitted. This is our first look at Elena who appears as a psychiatric nurse/doctor walking around groups of residents with dementia many of whom are wearing slippers and dressing gowns. Mefistofele seems uninterested in all this and is sat in his armchair reading the newspaper. For Faust and Elena it is love at first sight, feeling so happy as if being in Arcadia. In the Epilogue, Mefistofele takes Faust’s dressing gown and throws it on the floor. Faust has realised that he needs God’s forgiveness and with Mefistofele powerless to prevent him Faust gains redemption into heaven to the strains of a Divine Chorus. At the conclusion of the production the thwarted Mefistofele angrily grabs the vinyl off the gramophone breaking it over his knee.

One of the great bass roles in opera Mefistofele is played by the renowned René Pape who imparts an evil grandeur throughout. Wearing dark glasses, a purple suit, burgundy pointed toed zip boots with Cuban heel and black leather gloves the fanatical egotistical Mefistofele sometimes carries a bull whip. Striking singing from Pape in Ave Signor, ‘Mefistofele’s aria’ from the prologue as he gives his contemptuous address to God. A highlight is the celebrated bass aria from act one Son lo spirito che nega sempre known as the ‘Whistle Aria’ this is Mefistofele revealing his chilling philosophy for life by living and breathing for sin, death and evil. In 2014 I saw Pape wonderfully perform a scene from Die Walküre at Frauenkirche, Dresden and here at Munich he maintains his remarkable form. Displaying outstanding stage presence the German bass is in bold and exhilarating form responding expressively to the demands of Boito’s dramatic writing. Admirable is Pape’s steadfast focus, the way he moulds a line and his ability to chillingly affect the listener.

Gentle and loving before coming under the spell of the evil Mefistofele, the ill-fated Margherita poisons her mother and kills her own baby. Portrayed with considerable femininity in a lilac dress, gloves and pearl necklace Kristine Opolais makes a convincingly shy and reserved Margherita an unfortunate woman who has descended into emotional turmoil. Margherita’s remarkable aria from act three L'altra notte is rendered with profound emotion as she movingly tells of drowning her baby. Here the Latvian soprano demonstrates her powerful projection, close dynamic control and a splendid ability to convey intense emotion as if living the role. I know what a superb artist Opolais is and am reminded of seeing her performing in concert earlier this year in the ‘Letter Scene’ from Eugene Onegin at Semperoper Dresden.

In the part of Faust, Joseph Calleja comes across as a decent young man who is being gravely led astray by the influence of the diabolical Mefistofele. Through most of the opera Faust is wearing a business suit and white shirt which give him an air of respectability. Calleja has several arias and especially distinguished is his act one aria Dai campi, dai prati tenderly singing of the compassion and integrity of humankind. I also savour his act four aria Forma ideal purissima affectionately telling Elena that she is his perfect woman. Although not always ideally steady the Maltese tenor is in fine bright voice and is noticeably carefully expressing his texts. There is an appealing sweet edge to Calleja’s timbre and he seems particularly comfortable in his top register.

Appearing in act four as Elena, Karine Babajanyan looks rather staid and suitably professional in her psychiatric role in the dementia unit. With her black hair tied tightly back, plainly dressed in the ubiquitous white lab coat and grey skirt Elena seems an unlikely love interest for the dementia patient Faust. Distressed and racked with emotion the Armenian successfully renders her aria Notte cupa, truce, senza fine funèbre! Displaying her smooth and clear soprano Babajanyan sings with marked expression of her endless misery and unrelenting remorse. Played by mezzo Heike Grötzinger, Marta a curly redhead is clearly one of Mefistofele’s favoured acolytes. Mainly seen tartily dressed in short black leather biker jacket, mini skirt and fishnets with high heels on another occasion Marta was more soberly attired as a waitress. With little singing needed be done here Grötzinger acts the role of Marta well giving an assured performance. In the minor roles Andrea Borghini (Wagner), Rachael Wilson (Pantalis) and Joshua Owen Mills (Nerèo) do all that is asked of them.

The excellent chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper is clearly flourishing in its active involvement especially in Ave, Signor degli angeli and Salve Regina/Ave, Signor from the prologue; both glorious and affecting. Adding colour are the raucous Oktoberfest choruses from act one while from the epilogue the finale Ave Signor is magnificently done. The children’s choir also sounds in fine voice adding a valuable contribution to the choruses. Visually stimulating, Stefano Giannetti’s choreography is very effective too. Music director Omer Meir Wellber is making a substantial reputation for himself. I saw him conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at Frauenkirche, Dresden this May and I can testify that his enthusiasm and dedication is exceedingly infectious. Wellber conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester with real passion and it responds with committed playing, generating inescapable drama.

Video director Tiziano Mancini maintains his usual high standard. I especially enjoy his choice of shots, engaging the viewer and never letting the eye rest too long on one camera angle. It is good to see he values views of the audience pre-concert and occasionally of the conductor in the orchestra pit which all add to the overall experience of a live performance. Filmed in HD there is an ample range of colour displayed on stage yet it is illuminated only occasionally owing to the frequently gloomy background lighting. The usual choice of stereo and surround sound is satisfyingly recorded. Disappointingly on the film there is no bonus footage in particular an absence of interviews with principal cast members, conductor or directorial team; which I nearly always find informative. In the Blu-ray case the booklet helpfully contains a track listing, a concise essay and a synopsis.

Love it or loathe it Roland Schwab’s highly controversial and often disturbing staging of Mefistofele makes a mightily powerful impact, drawing me in hook, line and sinker. Compelling and thought provoking, it will be one of my ‘Records of the Year’.

Michael Cookson

Performance details

In Italian, after Goethe’s play Faust
Mefistofele - René Pape
Faust - Joseph Calleja
Margherita - Kristine Opolais
Elena - Karine Babajanyan
Marta - Heike Grötzinger
Wagner - Andrea Borghini
Pantalis - Rachael Wilson
Nerèo - Joshua Owen Mills
Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Omer Meir Wellber
Roland Schwab (stage director)
Piero Vinciguerra (set designer)
Renée Listerdal (costume designer)
Michael Bauer (lighting designer)
Stefano Giannetti (choreography)
Tiziano Mancini (video director)
rec. 6/9 November 2015 Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich
Filmed in High Definition - Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats: a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit, b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
Subtitles in Italian (original language), German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese

 

 




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