Modernist Mefistofele by Boito Outclasses Mozart’s Figaro in Budapest

HungaryHungary  Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele,  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Budapest Opera /János Kovács (conductor), Budapest Opera House, 2.2.2012 (SF)

Mefistofele: András Palerdi
Faust Gaston: Riveo
Margherita: Elena Zsuzsanna Bazsinka
Wagner : Nereo Tivadar Kiss
Marta: Pantalis Éva Balatoni

Director: Balázs Kovalik
Set Designer: Csaba Antal
Costume Designer: Mari Benedek
Choreographer: Marianna Venekei
Choir Master: Máté Szabó Sipos
Leader of Children’s Choir: Gyöngyvér Gupcsó

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro, Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Budapest Opera /János Kovács (conductor), Budapest Opera House, 1.2.2012

Conte di Almaviva: András Káldi Kiss
La Contessa di Almaviva: Ilona Tokody
Susanna: Zita Váradi
Figaro: Gábor Bretz
Bartolo: István Rácz
Marcellina: Mária Ardó
Basilio: László Beöthy-Kiss
Cherubino: Atala Schöck
Antonio: András Hábetler
Barbarina: Emőke Baráth
Don Curzio: Péter Kiss

Director: Judit Galgóczy
Set Designer: Attila Csikós
Costume Designer: Nelly Vágó
Choreographer Gábor Keveházi
Leader of Children’s Choir: Gyöngyvér Gupcsó
Choir Master: Máté Szabó Sipos

Budapest seems like the right house for Mefistofele. Both were finished at about the same time and both are at the ridiculous end of extravagant. Boito thought Gounod’s treatment of the Faust story lightweight and so wrote a more challenging version. The result was a substantial four acts (Faust’s contract, Faust and Margherita in the garden, Margherita in prison, In ancient Greece) with a Prologue that sets up the plot, and an Epilogue in which Faust redeems himself.

Of the principal singers, András Palerdi was suitably menacing as Mefistofele. His acting was committed but perhaps his voice wasn’t quite strong enough to be as dominating as the role demands. Zsuzsanna Bazsinka gave a solid performance as Margherita/Elena, with some emotional highs during Margherita’s prison scene – even with the inevitable writhing on the floor. The voice of the evening, however, was Gaston Riveo who had the power to carry over the orchestra. He used it sparingly, but when he did it pulled the listener by the lapels into the music. The enormous chorus was well balanced and integrated into the performance.

Conductor János Kovács, whom to my shame I didn’t know, held the large forces together. The pacing seemed just right, I was always held by the music, and the orchestra was clearly balanced (the house is noted for its good acoustics) even with the additional (excellent) brass band. The one flaw in the playing was a badly out of tune piccolo for the last chord, an unfortunate way to end the evening.

It’s unlikely we’ll see this production again as the news is that the current government has fallen out with the director. I’m not sure about their motivations but they might have a point here. The general look was twenties’ modernism. The set was dominated by a spiral structure resembling Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” which cast and chorus walked up and down (production tip: soloists at the top of a large structure can only be seen in the stalls). Heaven had plastic raincoats which looked a bit like an early Doctor Who set, which were stripped off and thrown down noisily during Faust’s final aria (production tip: keep quiet during the big numbers). Ancient Greece had a touch of Metropolis about it (production tip: wheeling the singers around in hospital gurneys during a love duet does not help). The old technique of representing Frankfurt by model houses worked well, especially when Mefistofele started kicking them over to show his taste for chaos, as did representing Margherita’s cell as a square of plastic sheeting–until she had to start writhing in a pool of blood. Possibly the main production failing, however, was that Faust was not transformed – not even symbolically. He charmed the girls in the same tired suit in which he pottered about his studio. There was no representation of what he gained for his deal with the Devil and what he lost when he returned.

All in all, I’m glad I went as, with all its failings, there was enough here to carry the work, which I’m unlikely to see again for a while. And at Budapest prices, it’s a bargain.

The less said about the previous night’s Nozze di Figaro the better. I can only assume they were saving all the money for the Mefistofele. Kovács conducted this too, with good pacing – also providing a perfunctory continuo on the piano. The Count, Figaro, and Susanna were serviceable for a minor league production, the rest of the cast weren’t – except for the one highlight of the evening, Atala Schöck as Cherubino who had a pure tone, combined with actual acting, that made her arias something to look forward to. The production appears to have been installed when they built the house and risks offending no-one.

Steve Freeman