BOITO: Mefistofele
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BOITO: Mefistofele

spacer Racette, Johnson, Rapier; Vargas, Wang, Abdrazakov; San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Luisotti. Production: Carsen. San Francisco Opera/EuroArts 2059674 (Blu-ray), 2059678 (DVD), 145 mins., subtitled


It’s refreshing, in this day of Regie-mania, to encounter a video whose production grabs your attention by honest theatrical ingenuity rather than sheer perversity or shock. Robert Carsenmade his first international splash with this Mefistofele in 1988 in Geneva, but it was the following year, in San Francisco, that the show launched its decade-long sweep of America’s leading opera houses — Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C., and finally, in 1999, the Met. Few opera productions celebrate a twenty-fifth anniversary without a few telltale wrinkles and sags. But this silver celebrant looks — and plays — even better in its 2013 guise than it does on the DVD (on Kultur) of its original San Francisco run. It’s a staging I wouldn’t hesitate to call a classic.

Read Carsen’s booklet note and you’ll know the secret of its enduring success: he loves and respects Boito’s grand, tuneful, wittily literate opera. But it’s not a pious respect. He and his designer, Michael Levine — in the first of their many happy collaborations — set Mefistofele in an eighteenth-century opera house with century-spanning carryings-on; their here-and-now is the Italy of the Risorgimento, but their Walpurgis Night is an overage kiddies’ birthday party of the 1950s run amok, and the devil of the epilogue swigs from a bottle of (what else?) Johnnie Walker Red. Carsen’s wholehearted embrace of theatricality, with all its artifice — stage boxes, orchestra pit, ladders, flies, spots — is infectious: he never tries to fool you; he simply lets you in on the fun.

And fun is certainly what Ildar Abdrazakov seems to be having in the title role. Carsen’s production was a tailor-made showcase for Samuel Ramey, who introduced it in all the cities named above and became for a whole generation the voice, face and figure of Boito’s devil. But just as he did with Verdi’s Attila, Abdrazakov proves a worthy heir to a Ramey role. Their voices aren’t dissimilar — handsome, lithe, morebaritonally cantante than the darker, scarier-soundingbasses (de Angelis, Neri, Christoff) I usually hear in the score in my mind’s ear — and their portrayals, à la Carsen, aren’t far apart either, though Abdrazakov chooses a comb instead of a cigarette for some prologue business, and he forgoes pinstripes on his pink suit in the garden scene. If I credit Ramey’s Mephisto with some extra flair — some extra demonic spark — perhaps it’s sentiment. Both of them give the devil his due. 

There are, of course, other factors to weigh when choosing between Mefistofele ’89 and Mefistofele ’13. The new version’s Margarita and Elena, Patricia Racette, is thoroughly committed (as always), and she’s compelling in her prison mad scene, but vocally she’s no match for the radiant Gabriela Beňačková. Ramón Vargas is almost too likable a presence as Faust, and his voice betrays some stress and strain up top; 1989’s Dennis O’Neill, with more heft and ring, sounds happier in Boito’s music. Erin Johnson scores points for 2013 with her amusingly overripe Marta, as do the fuller-sounding chorus and the alert orchestra under Nicola Luisotti’s incisive baton. The sound is, in general, much better on the new release (though the solo voices have a bit more presence on the old one), and the HD image is easily superior, with a palette and precision unattainable a quarter-century ago. If you’re buying for Carsen’s (and Michael Levine’s) terrific show, 2013 is the way to go. spacer 


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