Warmed Up Again: Mefistofele in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States A. Boito, Mefistofele: Soloists, San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 11.9.2013 (RRR)

Direction: Robert Carsen
Revival: Laurie Feldman
Sets & Costumes: Michael Levine
Lighting: Gary Marder
Choreography: Alphones Poulin


Mefistofele: Ildar Abdrazakov
Magherita & Elena: Patricia Racette
Faust: Ramón Vargas
Mart: Erin Johnson
Pantalis: Renée Rapier
Wagner, Nereo: Chuanyue Wang

Photo courtesy San Francisco Opera, © Cory Weaver

Here come the long-term memory problems! I was well into the performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele at the San Francisco Opera on September 11, 2013, before I realized that I had seen this production before—back in 1989. How could I have not remembered?

Perhaps the reason is that I saw this opera in a different production back in the early 1970s at the New York City Opera, with Norman Treigle, who gave one of the greatest acting/operatic performances that I have ever seen or heard. Perhaps I am not having long-term memory problems after all, because his performance as Mefistofele is still vividly etched in my mind, as are some of the sets and the staging of that production. What more likely happened is that my memories of City Opera crowded out the later San Francisco Opera production, despite Samuel Ramey’s fine singing in the title role.

I actually located the 1989 program booklet, and it contained exactly the same plot synopsis (which I will not repeat here) and the same essay by Julian Budden, as does the current one. Both of them are fine: so this does not present a problem, though I was tempted to locate my old review and simply rerun it, with adjustments for the singing of the current cast. Alas, I could not find it; so readers are spared a regurgitation. Whatever the reasons, I can say that I brought a fairly fresh mind to this performance. Therefore, I was newly disappointed by certain aspects of the production but gained a deeper appreciation for others.

The famous Prologue in Heaven, with which the opera begins, presents a dialogue between the devil and God (as transmitted by the Chorus Mysticus). Boito wrote some of his best music for this 25-minute Prologue and, when done correctly, it should be overpowering. The audience should be enveloped in a womb of sound. This did not happen. The chorus sounded heavenly, but faint, as if set too far off stage. The orchestral textures were muddy. The choral sound was so recessive that it vitiated the impact of the music. When the scrim, on which rising clouds had been projected, comes up toward the end, a theater within the theater is revealed. In it and its multi-tiered boxes are placed the members of the heavenly chorus. (Shouldn’t heavenly choruses be heard and not seen?) Each one is costumed identically in blue and white, wears a mask, and has on a gold crown.

Blue and white are, of course, the colors of Mary. Since Mary is the Queen of Heaven, she is usually depicted with a crown. What are we to make of the presentation of some 60 such Marys? This puzzle was only solved by director Robert Carsen’s note that “everyone who has made it to heaven is both a spectator and a king of Heaven. Each one has a crown and a seat and watches the activities of the earth on the stage below.” This seems to be a mistake, which will confuse anyone in the audience with the faintest knowledge of Christian iconography. If one is going to use religious images, it helps to understand the language of those images. Also, the theology of the statement that everyone is a king in heaven is, to say the least, hazy.

available at Amazon
A.Boito, Mefistofele,
J.Rudel / LSO /
P.Domingo, N.Treigle, M.Caballé et al.

Why the theater within a theater? I have seen this device used often; it is a well-worn conceit. Usually, it creates a distancing effect, the purpose of which is irony. We watch people who are watching the main action. It puts us at a step removed; it invites us to see not directly, but through the eyes of the onstage audience. Why would Carsen wish us to do that? In his note, he explained that “the idea is that heaven is a theater auditorium…” But what does that help us to understand about the opera or anything else? Carson goes on to say that “the heavenly proscenium arch serves as a constant reminder that whichever setting we may be in, it is still subsumed within the larger one of the cosmos.” That is a cogent point to make, but I fear that it did not dramatically convey with a theatrical device that has usually meant something else.
Now for some good news. Central Casting could have sent Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov to play Mefistofele. He looked every bit the part, and sang it well. My only previous experience with him was as Don Giovanni in last year’s production at the Washington National Opera (review here). Ironically, my only reservation was that, while he portrayed the seductiveness of Don Giovanni extremely well, he did not quite express the underlying corruption and evil. As Mefistofele, Abdrazakov captured both the circus side of his character, as well as the naysaying evil. Some of his low notes could have been fuller, but he certainly stands comparison with a younger Samuel Ramey in the role.

Back to the staging, the first part of Act 1 is supposed to depict Easter Sunday in Frankfurt, with the procession of the Elector. Carsen turned it into combination of Easter procession and Carnival. Since Carnival takes place before Lent, this was a puzzling juxtaposition. As confusing as this was, the setting, costumes, and the staging were highly colorful. As part of the procession, a depiction of Adam and Eve, wearing only fig leaves, in a circular Garden of Eden was paraded around. They consume the apple and then begin some sexual gymnastics, including simulated copulation, all within the hilarity of the Carnival atmosphere. For an Easter procession, that seemed odd at least, and probably unnecessary.

However, the circle and the idea of the Garden of Eden were used intelligently and effectively throughout the rest of the production. When Faust begins his seduction of Margherita in Act 2, he does so on a raked, verdant circle of green grass, planted with apple trees. The circle is cranked so that it slowly moves. This obviously recalls the earlier depiction of Adam and Eve with the apple. The circular movement implies both the repetition of the original sin and the futility of it. In fact, an old woman is seen by the side of the circle, operating the cranking device. What does her presence convey? In this case, a dramatically apt irony that creates exactly the kind of distance that invites us to see the scene, not as Faust and Margherita experience it, but as what it really is—a repetition of the folly in the Garden of Eden. In Act 3, Margherita is not in jail (which is the normal setting), but imprisoned in the same raked circle which now, however, is completely barren, with dead trees and no fruit. This was very nicely done. The Act 2 scene of Walpurgis Night on Brocken not so much: It was portrayed as a giant dinner dance party at which the witches and warlocks behave like excitable children. Their infantilization may be fun, but it actually serves to diminish the stature of Mefistofele. If this is his kingdom, he must not be much of a king.

There was another problem. In Julian Budden’s notes for the Decca recording of Mefistofele, he observes that, “even the wildest moments in the Brocken scene are without a trace of crudeness or vulgarity.” He was speaking of the music. Carsen’s depiction had an abundance of both. Last November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a ban on public nudity. Apparently, the denizens of the Brocken did not get the word. Actually (though not so apparently), they were wearing body stockings, with ample pudenda attached. But the illusion was so strong that I looked away in embarrassment for the chorus. What was so much detumescence on stage supposed to convey? Carsen had enough good ideas that he did not have to descend to this. Great drama is conveyed by indirection, not by full frontal nudity or its simulation.

Back to the good news: Patricia Racette sang the dual roles of Margherita and Elena (Helen of Troy) with conviction and style. Her Margherita was very moving and her Elena was not only vocally marvelous, but acted in an appropriately stylized way that could not have been more different from her depiction of Margherita—no mean feat for a singer in a single evening. Tenor Ramón Vargas as Faust made Abdrazakov look all the more physically imposing. He was swamped a number of times by the orchestra and seemed to fully blossom only in the latter half. At first I thought he was having trouble projecting. Then I noticed that almost everyone was getting swamped.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti, whose work I so enjoyed in a 2011 performance at the San Francisco Opera of Don Giovanni (review here), certainly had the orchestra pumped up, but there seemed to be balance problems through much of the evening. Highly praised as this production has been, it will not erase my memories of New York City Opera.

The performance will be repeated on September 20, 24, 29, and October 2.

Robert R. Reilly

Photo courtesy San Francisco Opera, © Cory Weaver