Boito’s entertaining hell is open for business with Met’s “Mefistofele”

Fri Nov 09, 2018 at 3:07 pm
Michal Bafbainao as Fustand CHrsuitan Van Hone rn inthe twitle role of Boisto's "Mefistofele" at the Metroolitan OPera Photo:

Michael Fabiano as Faust and Christian Van Horn in the title role of Boito’s “Mefistofele” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

An important literary figure in his time, Arrigo Boito is best known to opera fans today for having contributed the libretti to Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff. His own Mefistofele, one of several retellings of the Faust legend for operatic stage, has achieved success at various moments in its history, but has become a relative rarity—particularly at the Metropolitan Opera.

The season premiere on Thursday night resurrected a Robert Carsen production that hadn’t been seen since its inaugural run in the 1999-2000 season, which itself had brought the piece back to the Met stage after an absence of more than seventy years.

Mefistofele is an entertaining piece, if hardly a long-lost masterwork. Taking Goethe’s version of the tale as its base, its story is scatterbrained to begin with, presenting a madcap romp through time and space starring a trickster devil and a scholar of questionable ethics. In much of the score, Boito relies on clever effects, like sul ponticello tremolos in the strings to evoke hellfire, but these are not enough to hold the piece together, even in a performance of such solid musical standards as the Met gave on Thursday night. Moments of brilliance, though, particularly in the extensive and massive writing for the chorus, give a hint of what might have been if Boito had given more of his career to composing.

That said, Robert Carsen’s production goes a long way towards making the opera engaging. Carsen’s metatheatrical conceit has archangels in stage boxes taking in the performance, while the action itself uses painted backdrops, trick curtains, and flashy costumes to create a circus-like atmosphere. This bombast-on-a-budget aesthetic makes a virtue of camp, tackling the flimsy silliness of the libretto by making it more pageant than drama.

If nothing else, Mefistofele is a terrific vehicle for a star bass—indeed, the once-in-a-generation 1999-2000 run was organized as an opportunity to show off Samuel Ramey. Taking on the title role for this run, Christian Van Horn gave a commanding performance as a mustachio-twirling devil in a long red tailcoat. A bass-baritone rather than a true bass, he was stretched a bit in the bottom of the role, but made up for it with a muscular, burning tone in the rest of his range. His most memorable aria, “Son lo spirito che nega,” comes in Act I, when he first reveals himself to Faust. Van Horn sang his own accolades with gleeful menace, leaning into the challenge of the music’s lower edge to produce a taut, gravelly sound. “Ecco il mondo, vuoto e tondo,” his smug discourse during the witches’ sabbath in Act II, was another chance for Van Horn to strut about, though the blocky vocal writing here is less convincing.

Michael Fabiano was less comfortable in the role of Faust. His dramatic portrayal was fairly bland, never really reacting to the stakes of what was going on around him and never showing much emotional investment as a result: he greeted the appearance of the devil in his study with jovial curiosity, and furrowed his brow a bit to see his beloved Margherita coming apart. Fabiano’s best voice came and went—early on, he didn’t show much of his usual color, but finally found some warmth in Act IV and the Epilogue, particularly in a ravishing “Giunto sul passo estremo,” as he suddenly (and inexplicably) earns salvation. Even here, though, he showed the same issues at the top of his range that plagued him throughout the night, spreading badly on sustained high notes.

Margherita, Faust’s idealized beloved, doesn’t have much stage time in Boito’s version of the story, but she does get the opera’s most remarkable aria: “L’altra notte in fondo al mane,” her half-mad lamentation from her prison in hell, here shown as the decayed remnant of the sunny park in which she and Faust had shared a quiet stroll in the previous act. Angela Meade, a reliable bet to make the most of whatever she is given, gave a poignant reading of the aria, showing a range of colors—burning in her chest, plush in the middle, powerful at the top—and carving her phrases beautifully.

As Faust’s student Wagner, Raúl Melo was difficult to hear, as was Theodora Hanslowe in the role of Marta, the randy townswoman who pairs off with Mefistofele while Faust woos Margherita. Jennifer Check sounded unusually shrill as Helen of Troy, conjured up as a gift to keep Faust from straying back towards salvation, and was nearly upstaged by Samantha Hankey, who showed a warm contralto in her company debut as Pantalis.

The Met chorus, for their part, upstaged just about everyone. From the angelic hosts to the street festivals to the thrilling fugue of the Witches’ Sabbath, they are called upon to carry much of the opera, and have some of its most sublime music—their shining power in the spectacular “Salve Regina” at the end of the Prologue was a clear example of what it means for a company to have a first-rate chorus. 

Carlo Rizzi, leading this run in between showings of Tosca, was admirable n the pit. This was not his tightest performance, as he lost control of a few tricky ensemble numbers, but he gave a colorful account of the score, bringing out its melodramatic contrasts between heaven and hell.

Mefistofele runs through December 1 at the Metropolitan Opera. Joseph Colaneri leads all performances beginning Nov. 19.

3 Responses to “Boito’s entertaining hell is open for business with Met’s “Mefistofele””

  1. Posted Nov 10, 2018 at 1:03 pm by Robert Prindle

    Bravo to the Met Chorus and, of course, Maestro Palumbo. Having performed this show under him, I can attest to how valuable it is to have an extraordinary chorus master at the helm. And the Met Chorus is composed of talented musicians who respond to this so very well. Again: Bravo!

  2. Posted Nov 20, 2018 at 11:23 am by Constance Ellis

    Nov. 19 Met performance was spectacular. Met Chorus cannot
    be bested, espcially in the Salve Reginas and the Witches”
    Sabbeth. Angela Meade’s vocal power and stunning range
    in “Altra notte” achieved epic effect.
    Love the campy aspects of the production. Bravo to all!

  3. Posted Nov 30, 2018 at 1:27 pm by Theodore Fink

    While your take on this is perfectly valid, the performances I saw on the Friday then on the Monday with a new conductor, were astounding. Comments from the public were on the order of “This is opera with a capital O”.

    This was the kind of spectacle and performance that one hopes for every time one goes to the Met but rarely finds.

    You leavened your rather faint praise with so many carps that most people reading your review would end up saying, “Well, later for that”. This is a real pity, in my opinion, because I think it was not to be missed.

    And, by the way, Michael Fabbiano was incredibly impressive when I heard him. By far the best Faust I ever heard. Instead of the lyric sounds we are used to hearing (think Gigli) which are constantly overwhelmed by the charismatic Mefistofele, he gave an exciting verismo interpretation, alla Andrea Chénier, which balanced out the opera much better.

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