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Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele - Opera in a Prologue, Four Acts and an Epilogue - in Italian, after Goethe’s play "Faust" (1868, rev. 1881) [134:12]
Mefistofele - René Pape; Faust - Joseph Calleja; Margherita - Kristine Opolais; Elena - Karine Babajanyan; Marta - Heike Grötzinger; Wagner - Andrea Borghini; Pantalis - Rachael Wilson; Nerčo - Joshua Owen Mills
Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Omer Meir Wellber
Roland Schwab (stage director)
Piero Vinciguerra (set designer)
Renée Listerdal (costume designer)
Michael Bauer (lighting designer)
Stefano Giannetti (choreography)
Tiziano Mancini (video director)
rec. 6-9 November 2015, Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich
Filmed in High Definition - Mastered from an HD source; Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats: a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit, b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
Subtitles in Italian (original language), German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR DVD 739208 [140.00]

Arrigo Boito composed two operas: Mefistofele and Nerone, the latter unfinished. Of the former Verdi commented "[Boito] aspires to originality but succeeds only at being strange." Despite this unhappy assessment, a revised version of Mefistofele performed some seven years after the first achieved some success. It is now the only work by Boito performed with anything like regularity. I myself, singing in the chorus of a local amateur opera group became acquainted with it some thirty-five years ago and I recall belting out the closing chorus with great enthusiasm, if with little musical accuracy.

When I opened the package containing this DVD, I was rather dismayed to see a cover image of Mefistofele and Faust on a motorbike. As a rule I am not happy with 'modernised' productions of operas - Turandot in a spaceship is not for me - but I tried to set my prejudices aside when reviewing this production. I have given a description of the action as the viewer sees it and where I think it helpful, a description of the traditional rendering of the scene.

The opera opens with a prologue in which Mefistofele mocks God and accepts a heavenly challenge successfully to tempt Faust, an excellent man. Traditionally this is a static section of the opera, and in a successful attempt to give it some action, the stage director has set it in a sort of gloomy netherworld populated by Mefistofele and a group of adoring acolytes, who sprawl around the junk-cluttered stage in various states of dress. As the prologue continues there is much activity, some of it rather baffling. In order to talk to God, Mefistofele places an old LP on a wind-up turntable and the sound of heaven – the chorus – is supposed to issue from the horn loudspeaker. To simulate the sound of such a device, the first few seconds of the choral music is made to sound constricted and crackly. This also happens again in the prologue and at the end of the opera in the epilogue, but only for a few seconds each time. The stage itself has scaffolding at the sides and a video screen at the back on which New York is projected as from a circling airliner. John Lennon's face is momentarily superimposed on the skyscrapers and then we zoom upwards through the clouds. I presume that this section is supposed to demonstrate Mefistofele’s power over earth and its inhabitants. Later, Faust is brought on stage as a chained captive, mocked by all. He is released and dressed in a white shirt which then has the word 'reue' (remorse) painted on it. During this section the chorus sings in praise of Heaven and pleads for the salvation of man.

After struggling to make sense of parts of the staging of this scene, I can see that the devilish acolytes are there to twist and writhe at Mefistofele’s behest, and later in the opera act to carry out his will by invisibly interacting with Faust and Wagner. They also supplement the occasionally slightly stiff acting of the chorus and move props around the stage. Sometimes their activities are baffling, but perhaps repeated viewings will clarify their meaning. They are all young, lithe and fit and I think that they may well be members of a ballet group, but there is no mention of them in any of the documentation that comes with the DVD. They certainly add to the visual excitement of the production.

Act I opens in Frankfurt where a fair is in full swing, the back of the stage being occupied by a merry-go-round. A large crowd is enjoying the merrymaking and Faust and his student Wagner are watching. Faust sings a short aria extolling the beauty of the countryside but Wagner (ridiculously dressed as a student in a peaked schoolboy cap and short pants) praises Faust whilst going on to say that he does not like being amongst the common people. Suddenly, Faust sees Mefistofele and is scared by his appearance, but Mefistofele, or possibly his devilish acolytes, cause Wagner to see an old monk instead and he speaks to reassure Faust. In the next scene, we are in Faust's study and he is frightened by the sudden appearance of Mefistofele, who speaks reassuringly. He then tempts Faust with many pleasures including the return of his youth, but Faust says he will only be tempted by spiritual happiness. Mefistofele agrees and we hear Faust ask him where the coach and horses is that is to carry them away. As they prepare to travel the devilish acolytes uncover a powerful motorbike and clothe the two in biking leathers. In a nice little touch Mefistofele’s biking helmet has two little horns on it. As Mefistofele says that they can fly through the air, they mount the bike whilst the acolytes wield a smoke and light device which mistily envelopes the bike and its riders. In the background the video screen shows a fleeting image giving the impression that the bike is moving quickly.

The second act shows Faust in the company of Marguerite and Mefistofele with Marta. Faust manages to gain Marguerite's favour and asks that they spend the night together. She says that she lives with her mother who will hear them. Mefistofele supplies Faust with a sleeping draught who then persuades Marguerite to dose her mother into a deep sleep. Meanwhile Mefistofele tries to seduce Marta who is portrayed as little better than a tart, eagerly submitting to Mefistofele’s groping hands and thrusting hips.

In scene two of the second act, Faust and Mefistofele climb a hill to witness a witches' Sabbat, which results in Mefistofele being proclaimed Lord of the Earth. Then, Faust has a vision of Marguerite chained in a cell awaiting execution, having poisoned her mother and killed her (and Faust’s) baby.

The production copes quite well with the Sabbat, the devilish acolytes helping the chorus to show us a moderately convincing orgy. The violent seduction of Marguerite is shown as part of the orgy, which is not the case in the libretto. Faust’s subsequent disturbing vision of Marguerite and the baby is well done using the video screen.

The third act shows a demented Marguerite in a prison cell where she has been imprisoned for murder. The setting is a darkened stage with a mound of flowers representing the grave of Marguerite’s mother and a teddy bear. Faust has demanded of Mefistofele that they must rescue her and Faust appears in her cell. He manages to persuade the distraught Marguerite to leave with him and live a happy life together. She agrees but the moment she sees Mefistofele appear she becomes frantic with fear and loathing. She dies in Faust’s arms and Mefistofele declares her to be dammed, but heaven intervenes and the chorus sings that she is saved.

In a traditional production of the fourth act, Faust has been transported back to classical Greece, where he is enchanted to be amongst the celebrated figures of mythology, especially the beautiful Helen of Troy.

Marlowe has it:
 
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

 
Helen has a momentary vision of the siege, the Trojan War and the slaughter that ensued, but when Faust approaches her, the vision fades and they make passionate love. Mefistofele has succeeded in further tempting Faust, by offering him the most beautiful woman who has ever lived.

However, the setting of this act is perhaps the most baffling of the entire production. The darkened stage is filled with groups of elderly people sitting around tables. A small group is separate and are clothed in neck-to-ankle protective white suits; one of them is using a paintbrush to dust rocks whilst passing them to another. Helen, Pantalis and Nereo are clothed in the sort of outfits one sees nurses using in hospitals. Faust enters looking disoriented and joins the people at the tables whilst a contemptuous Mefistofele dances a crazy jig around them. He then settles down in an armchair and reads a newspaper, evidently bored by the situation, for it would seem that we are in a care-home for elderly dementia patients. Helen, Pantalis and Nereo are care-workers who are giving devoted attention to the residents. Helen in particular is clearly very much loved by them all. She has a vision of the Fall of Troy and Faust falls for her and she for him.

The Epilogue to the opera shows Faust, once again an old man, back in his study and near to death. Mefistofele awaits, ready to claim his victim. However, despite experiencing earthly pleasures, Mefistofele has not granted Faust his wish to achieve spiritual happiness and fulfilment and as he becomes engrossed in a vision of utopian ecstasy. Mefistofele tries to tempt him again, but fails. He dies clutching his bible and is borne to heaven in a shower of roses, whilst the heavenly choir proclaims its triumph. Mefistofele is left bitter, whistling and hissing in fury at his defeat.

This finale to the opera is presented on a darkened stage with the chorus (who are still dressed as elderly dementia sufferers) standing around. In comparison with what has gone before, it is unremarkable, but one amusing moment occurs when Mefistofele, staggering around the stage, realises that he has failed to win his wager with heaven, and breaks the crackly LP that has been playing. The heavenly choir sing of Faust’s salvation in a chorus of exaltation.

Does this unusual presentation work? Well, yes, I think it does, although as might be expected the action and props sometimes clash horribly with the sung word. Having a description of the action as per the original libretto helped me to understand what was going on and I slowly came to appreciate the efforts of the production team. Only the classical Greece scene is so strange that I cannot say that I enjoyed it – perhaps instead of being portrayed as a woman of great physical beauty, the producer wanted to show Helen of Troy as a person of beautiful character.

It is probably fair to say that this opera is no great Italian masterpiece, and for many the closing chorus will be the piece of the opera that is recognisable. Overall, it is short of truly memorable arias, although the choruses at the fair and Sabbat are enjoyable, and Boito really succeeded in creating music of superb choral impact in the Epilogue.

The performances of all the principal members, chorus, ballet dancers, conductor and orchestra are first rate. None of the principals are weak in any way and René Pape is a super Mefistofele. Not only is he in very fine voice, but he is a splendid actor as well. His facial expressions are a treat to watch. Joseph Calleja as Faust is also in good vocal fettle, albeit he is a less subtle actor than Pape. That said, he makes the most of his role and is well cast. The character of Marguerite is very well done indeed by Kristine Opolais – she is in splendid voice and so is Karine Babajanyan as Helen of Troy. The much smaller parts of Marta, Wagner, Pantalis and Nereo are all admirably sung and acted, although it is hard to hear Nereo (Joshua Owen Mills) over the chorus.

The video itself is technically very good, with sharp images and the viewer able to see the necessary parts of the largely darkened stage. I listened to the DVD in stereo and sonically it is fine.

Jim Westhead

Previous review (Blu-ray): Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)

 

 




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