Imposing Spectacle: Mefistofele from the San Francisco Opera

Boito – Mefistofele

Mefistofele – Ildar Abdrazakov
Faust – Ramón Vargas
Elena – Patricia Racette
Margherita – Patricia Racette
Marta – Erin Johnson
Wagner – Wang Chuanyue
Panthalis – Renée Rapier
Nerèo – Wang Chuanyue

San Francisco Opera Chorus, San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Nicola Luisotti.
Stage director – Robert Carsen.  Video director – Frank Zamacona.

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  September 2013.  Streamed via San Francisco Opera’s website.

As with so many other lyric theatres during this current worldwide closure, San Francisco Opera is making available some of its most notable recent stagings.  In addition to this 2013 revival of Robert Carsen’s Mefistofele, the company will also be making available I Capuleti e i Montecchi as well as Lucrezia Borgia and Heggie’s Moby Dick.  The productions are made available for a day and viewers have until 08:59 CEST on Monday, May 11th, 2020 to watch this Mefistofele.  The good news, however, is that if you happen to miss this outing, this production is also available on DVD from all good retailers.

Carsen gives us quite a show with his staging, here revived by Laurie Feldman.  The proscenium of the War Memorial Opera House is adorned with trumpeting angels, Michael Levine’s set bursting out into the auditorium.  The setting for heaven is highly ornate, populated with what seems to be a cast of thousands (or at least 90 adult choristers and 30 children).  Similarly, both the Easter Sunday celebrations and the Witches’ Sabbath consist of the chorus literally throwing themselves into the action – whether in a bawdy Adam and Eve recreation on Easter Sunday, or the Witches’ Sabbath seeing several of the gentlemen of the chorus given some visible phallic appendages of quite impressive length.  But Carsen doesn’t only give us spectacle – in Margherita’s scene in the prison, he shows only her, alone, bringing home her desperation and loneliness.

Photo: © Cory Weaver 2013

What we get, then, is a highly visual feast and yet, as so often, there was a tendency for the principals to resort to stock operatic acting – holding an arm aloft or singing into the middle distance.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t chemistry between the three principals (both Margherita and Elena are taken by the same singer, Patricia Racette), more that there were several occasions on which I longed for characters to engage even more realistically with each other.  That said, Ildar Abdrazakov’s Mefistofele is utterly magnetic, holding the stage, dominating it with sheer animal magnetism – to the extent that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.

Abdrazakov dispatched his music in a warm bass-baritone of glamourous sheen.  The very bottom was slightly arid – noticeably so in his big ‘Son lo Spirito’ – but the middle sounded wonderfully healthy.  He sang with wit, not afraid to use the tone to create comedy and was also an impressive actor, using his facial expressions to bring the character vividly to life.  The energy with which he lit up the stage was seriously impressive.

Photo: © Cory Weaver 2013

Ramón Vargas gave us an earnest yet impassioned Faust.  His tenor was in fabulous shape on the evening of this recording, the tone full of sunny warmth, soaring into the higher reaches with ease.  There was never a sense in his singing of a voice walking a tightrope but instead, he sang his music with refreshing ease.  He’s an honest stage presence and incarnated the slightly bookish, gauche character well.

As both Margherita and Elena, Racette incarnated her characters with admirable commitment.  Her soprano is somewhat shallow in tone, with the top tending to lose body, while the vibrations loosen at fuller dynamics.  In her ‘L’altra notte in fondo al mare’, she used the text to project the tone, making use of a palette of vocal colours.   She poured her heart out for us in that celebrated number.  In the theatre, I imagine the effect would have been overwhelming but at home, one becomes more aware of the tone thinning out on top.  As Elena, she sailed across the stage, singing with dedication as she soared with Vargas in their big duet.

Photo: © Cory Weaver 2013

The remaining roles were effectively taken, with an especial mention for Renée Rapier who blended agreeably with Racette in their duet, offering darker tone of seductive silkiness.  This is, of course, one of the great choral operas and Ian Robertson’s chorus was on blistering form that night.  Watching on TV can only give a fraction of the impression that mighty sound must have had in the house.  Indeed, at times some of the off-stage singing wasn’t ideally balanced in the sound mix, recorded at a much lower volume which resulted in an emergency reach for the remote control.  The big climaxes were suitably huge though, even if some of the sopranos were a bit too generously vibrating.  The singers seemed to be having a wonderful time with their bawdy romps in the witches’ sabbath, which they executed with abandon.  Ensemble was watertight throughout.

Nicola Luisotti led his orchestra in a reading that was, for the most part, delightfully fleet of foot – although the opening prologue seemed to drag slightly.  Again, in the sound mix for the broadcast, the strings sounded thin with the overall sound balance favouring the voices.  How much of this reflects what was heard in the house is hard to know.  The brass rose to the occasion with some thrillingly imposing playing.

Photo: © Cory Weaver 2013

This Mefistofele is most definitely a show.  It’s grand opera and its most insanely grand, with decadent sets and costumes, a massive choral sound and a big, brassy orchestra.  The downside is that, occasionally, the personal can take second place to the spectacle – although Racette’s Margherita transcends this.  The evening was capped by a magnetic account of the title role from a singer who succeeded in holding the stage even, with all the action going on around him.  Undoubtedly an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon.

During this period of theatrical closures, crowdfunding support for has been put on hold.  I encourage you to investigate ways of supporting your local companies and artists while houses remain closed.  Both the Patreon and PayPal for the site will resume as soon as theatres open again.


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