A Puzzling (and Ultimately Disappointing) Production of Mefistofele

GermanyGermany Boito, Mefistofele: Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Chor und Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Omer Meir Wellber (conductor), National Theatre, Munich, 21.7.2016. (JMI)

Mefistofele © W. Hösl


Direction: Roland Schwab
Sets: Piero Vinciguerra
Costumes: Renée Listerdal
Lighting: Michael Bauer


Mefistofele: René Pape
Fausto: Joseph Calleja
Margherita: Kristīne Opolais
Elena: Karine Babajanyan
Pantalis: Rachel Wilson
Wagner: Andrea Borghini
Marta: Heike Grötzinger
Nerèo: Joshua Owen Mills

This staging by Roland Schwab premiered in Munich last October. As so often happens in modern productions, the director does not narrate the opera’s plot but rather offers his own story. The set, which is the same throughout, consists of semi-circular metallic scaffolding on both sides of the stage, with an empty space in the center where the action takes place. The settings of the various scenes are achieved with props, including a carousel for the fair in Act I. The meeting of Margherita and Fausto (Faust) takes place at what seems to be a restaurant table, while Act IV and the Epilogue are set in a mental hospital. The costumes are modern and without any particular distinction. The atmosphere of the entire production is very dark, and the lighting is handled well.

Roland Schwab presents Mephistopheles (Mefistofele) in his closed world (it appears that the other world is outside), which abounds in pimps, latex and whips. Fausto seems to be an experiment who comes out of the same underworld. Nothing indicates the evolution of Fausto through the opera, and Elena and the Classical Greece of Act IV are rather a joke. As a further contribution by Schwab, Fausto rapes Margherita at the end of the second act.

Leading the musical forces was conductor Omer Meir Wellber, who is enjoying a fine career in Germany, but his performance was not convincing: it was a rather superficial and noisy reading. I found Nicola Luisotti’s conducting in Valencia five years ago brighter and more satisfying. There was a good performance from the orchestra, and the choir did an excellent job in this very demanding opera.

Mephistopheles was German bass René Pape, who fell short of my expectations. He is the most important bass of recent years, especially in the German repertoire, and is also outstanding in Italian opera, for instance as Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Obviously, one always expects the best from René Pape, but he was uncomfortable vocally in the role, especially at the top. His stage performance presented no problems, but he gave the impression of not being at his best.

Joseph Calleja in the role of Fausto was superb. The quality and size of his voice are notable, and he was particularly brilliant here. Despite the strength of his performance overall, there were times when he had some problems with his breathing, especially in the epilogue.

Kristīne Opolais was a good interpreter of Margherita. The Latvian soprano is a real stage animal who covers up any shortcomings with her acting. She was penalized by the production in the second act: she had to sing from the back of the stage, and her voice is not large. Ms. Opolais did fine with the much anticipated “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” although she had to complete with the memory of my first Margherita: none other than Montserrat Caballé.

In the secondary characters Karine Babajanyan was a well-suited Elena of Troy  ̶  here just a nurse in the asylum. Rachel Wilson was good as Pantalis, the other nurse in the madhouse. Andrea Borghini did nicely as Wagner, and Heike Grötzinger was Marta with latex and whip.

José M. Irurzun

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