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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele – Ildar Abdrazakov
Faust – Ramón Vargas
Margheriat, Elena – Patricia Racette
Marta – Erin Johnson
Wagner, Nereo – Chuanyue Wang
San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Dance Corps/Nicola Luisotti
Recorded live at San Francisco Opera, October 2013
HD 16:9, PCM Stereo & DTS-MA 5.1; Regions A, B, C
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2059674 [145 minutes]

This opera is such a wonderful treat! Its glittering eclecticism is both its great strength and its great weakness, and it’s what will forever keep it on the fringes of the repertoire. It’s a strength because of the sheer variety of what’s on offer. There is deep seriousness in Margarita’s prison scene, but the garden scene resembles a knockabout buffa, while the Easter Sunday parade is like a Meistersinger procession. More importantly, the music ranges from the harrowing to the serene, and that’s just in the two most famous arias; Margherita’s “L’altra note infondo al mare” and Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti.”

However, it’s also a weakness because Boito simply didn’t have the technique to sustain his musical ideas over the huge span that he attempts. Good ideas come and go, but they don’t stick around, and the overall impression is of an opera that’s very episodic. The episodes are rather wonderful, though, and you have to take your hat off to any composer who has the audacity to set the opening and closing scenes of his opera in Heaven!

This eye-popper of a production from Robert Carsen serves the opera very well indeed. I enjoyed every moment of it, and not only because its lavish beauty seems a far cry from the straitened Covid times in which I’m writing: productions like this seem as far away as Heaven itself!

It’s a joint production between San Francisco and the New York Met, so no expense is spared, and they pull out all the stops to make a visual spectacular. Carsen uses a theatre-within-the-theatre to comment both on the performative aspect of all the characters’ lives, and on how we as the audience are drawn in and made complicit. He throws everything at his staging to make it look lavish, especially in the Easter Sunday parade, which alone probably cost the budget of most regional opera companies for a year. The massed ranks of the heavenly host look terrific in their costumes and boxes, but Margherita’s prison is also suitably nasty.

Furthermore, the performers are terrific. There is no point starting unless you have a good bass for the title role, and Ildar Abdrazakov is terrific. He sings with beauty and heroism, all the while balancing darkness and villainy. He also acts his socks (and shirt) off, repeatedly showing that this devil takes nothing particularly seriously, and that his negation of creation and creativity is all rather passé. Ramón Vargas is a light-voiced but very effective Faust, while Patricia Racette is a first rate Margherita, as well as an icy Helen. The smaller roles are all very well taken, too, particularly Erin Johnson, whose uproariously busty Marta is an excellent fourth wheel in the garden scene.

But the chief accolades go to conductor and ensemble. Nicola Luisotti knows how to milk the majesty out of every bar, and the orchestra are in on the act with him, playing each phrase as though it were the finest Italian music ever written. The chorus, too, do a magnificent job as angels in heaven and as devils in Walpurgisnacht. It all adds the feeling of luxury that make this disc a total winner.

This production also exists on a DVD starring Samuel Ramey as the devil in a 1989 performance, but the picture isn’t as clean and the sound is 2.0 stereo only. This one wins if you’re looking for Mefistofele on film. De Fabritiis, on CD, is probably still the best all-round introduction to the opera, but if you want the visuals then look no further.

Simon Thompson

Previous review (DVD): William Kreindler

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