Sonic Power and Imposing Visuals: Mefistofele at the Staatsoper Stuttgart

Boito – Mefistofele

Mefistofele – Mika Kares
Faust – Antonello Palombi
Elena – Olga Busuioc
Margherita – Olga Busuioc
Marta – Fiorella Hincapié
Wagner – Christopher Sokolowski
Panthalis – Fiorella Hincapié
Nerèo – Christopher Sokolowski

Kinderchor der Oper Stuttgart, Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart / Daniele Callegari.
Stage director – Àlex Ollé

Staatsoper Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.  Sunday, July 7th, 2019.

For its new production of Mefistofele, co-produced with the Opéra de Lyon where it was seen last year, the Staatsoper Stuttgart entrusted the work to the Catalan director Àlex Ollé of the Fura dels Baus theatre collective.  Mefistofele seems to be undergoing something of a mini-revival currently, with some other recent high-profile new productions in Munich and in Stuttgart’s neighbouring city of Baden-Baden.  It’s an uneven piece in some ways – several musical ideas feel underdeveloped just as they’re getting underway – but it’s also a fantastic showcase for a theatre to put the work of their orchestra and chorus at the very front and centre.  Indeed, it’s a huge sing for the chorus and tonight the Staatsopernchor, prepared by Manuel Pujol, more than rose to the challenge.

Ollé certainly keeps them busy.  He had the chorus perform the Easter Sunday scene as a raucous office party, complete with conga line and a gentleman stripper who definitely shook his booty most impressively.  He also had them incarnate bloodied, furry creatures in the Walpurgis Night scene and they were also impressively head-dressed attendants to Elena of Troy in her act.  The sets (Alfons Flores), were really quite ingenious – the initial setting of an office where a workaholic Faust worked as a scientist and Mefistofele a cleaner, changed impressively into a boîte de nuit where Faust first met Margherita, or an electric chair that killed Margherita but then became a throne for Elena.

Ollé gives us what is without doubt a great show.  It was rapturously received by the audience.  There was the hint of a deeper idea there that I’m not convinced was fully exploited and developed.  Mefistofele is seen in the prologue living in a hovel beneath the office.  In the Elena act, he appeared annoyed with Elena and Faust’s expansive declaration of love.  In the epilogue, Mefistofele is seen holding Faust prisoner.  It led me to wonder whether the story as a whole was the psychotic hallucination of someone escaping reality, particularly so as he appeared to be deeply disturbed by the sound of the chorus’s cries of glory to the heavens.  And yet, I’m not fully convinced that Ollé explores this idea fully, with the result that it felt added on, rather than part of a cogently argued theatrical narrative, however plausible this particular premise seemed.

Vocally there was much to enjoy.  Mika Kares gave an imposing account of the title role, sung in excellent Italian, the words always very clear.  There was an inky beauty to his middle and lower registers, the sound so full, warm and resonant.  The top sounded somewhat disconnected, lacking colour and metal.  Kares certainly held the stage, giving us a striking performance.  His Faust was Antonello Palombi.  Palombi gave us genuinely Italianate pointing of the words and sunny tone, always honestly sung and acted.  The voice did have a tendency to tightness in the longer, high-lying phrases, the support not sounding fully lined-up and connected.  Still, he was such a genuine and enthusiastic vocal and dramatic presence that he won me over.

Olga Busuioc took on both the roles of Margherita and Elena.  A member of the house’s ensemble, she certainly has some very promising raw material to work with.  The voice is big, rich and rounded, with a generous natural vibrato.  It does sound to my ears that the technique still needs some work.  The legato was rather aspirated and the tone had a tendency to lose the core at lower volumes.  She sang an impassioned ‘l’altra notte’, bringing out much feeling.  Christopher Sokolowski brought a youthful, lyric tenor to his roles.  Fiorella Hincapié, in her smaller roles, made a very positive impression.  The Colombian mezzo has a voice of wonderful sappiness and richness, combined with delightfully instinctive musicality.  Most certainly a singer to watch.

The chorus was magnificent.  They were on blazing form tonight, filling this glorious acoustic in waves of ecstatic sound.  It was physically overwhelming, the floor shaking underfoot, the choral and orchestral burst of sonic energy taking over this listener.  The house orchestra was on excellent form for Daniele Callegari.  He led a reading that was unobtrusive in its naturalness, unfolding logically throughout the evening.  Although it did feel that the Elena/Faust duet dragged slightly.  As with their colleagues in the chorus, the band made a massive noise in those overwhelming closing pages.  Coordination with the on-stage band was solid and the brass, in particular, played their music with impeccable accuracy.

This was a terrific evening overall.  It was always honestly sung and featured some compelling performances, as well as highlighting some notable new vocal talents.  We were given a visually tremendous show, based in an interesting premise that ultimately, perhaps, didn’t quite feel fully developed.  With the house forces on seriously impressive form, this was an evening that showed this estimable house at its very best.

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