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Diabolical variations

Whenever I encounter Eric Owens, he’s plotting to conquer the universe. From Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre with the New York Philharmonic to Wagner’s Ring at the Met, he has that fire in his belly. He never quite manages to gain the world, but you have to notice the dedication he brings to this questionable ambition.

His latest bid for power, Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, was the title role in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. Mefisto doesn’t so much challenge the authority of “il vecchio,” the ancient of days, as undermine it. He lost the battle to do even that, but if they ever make an opera of The Lord of the Rings, Owens is surely the inevitable choice for Saruman or the Mouth of Sauron.

Boito’s magnificent antihero is a basso profundo who, for once, is an ironist, rather than grounding his character in moral certainty and severity in the manner of Moussorgsky’s Dosifey or Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor or Halévy’s Cardinal de Brogni. One would like to say Owens conquered the role, but his rather grainy voice was neither diabolical nor convincingly seductive nor contemptuous. There were some impressive phrases and a lot of growling but he did not plumb any surfaces: He was a Lucifer without spark.

Boito’s only completed opera is one-of-a-kind, fitting into no previous or subsequent school of opera, especially Italian opera: one of those out-of-left-field masterpieces that contemporaries did not quite know what to make of. Berlioz’ Les Troyens is another such case; one might add Wagner’s post-operatic music-dramas and Moussorgsky’s two grandiose eccentricities.

It is not merely that Boito was trying to master both parts of Goethe’s monumental Faust (as no one else ever did), somehow reducing it to prologue, four acts and epilogue, or the unprecedentedly outsize function of the chorus. Angelic, human, devilish, the chorus is always observing and participating while not usurping center stage, becoming itself the protagonist, as in Verdi’s Nabucco. This, no doubt, is why the Collegiate Chorale chose it for this year’s concert opera at Carnegie Hall. Mefistofele has not been heard in New York for thirteen years and this unusual score is more intriguing the more familiar it becomes, but the chorus’s work, too, left something titanic to be desired. The empyrean was well presented, but the orgies did not make the spine tingle.

There is something quirky about Boito’s style of melody, at least for Italy in 1868. Melodies in this opera are not statements displaying character in the manner of Verdi; they linger in the orchestra and make a subtler impact. Much of the singing is close to speech, but how originally, how fragrantly this speech lies upon flowing melody. In the great duet, “Lontano, lontano,” Faust and Margherita sing phrases of repeated notes that become a thread of regret through the changing instrumental harmonies that surround them.

Much of Mefistofele’s own singing is of a knowing, a double-meaning intent, spoken while winking at us, as if he participates in the story through a frame, not subject to the same rules and concerns as the mortal characters—which, for a demon is perfectly true. Irony is not an easy thing to express in full basso bluster. Boito makes this feel genuine in ways Gounod (or Meyerbeer in Robert le Diable or Berlioz in Damnation de Faust) never attained. Italians, certainly, were not used to such multiple shadings of character: Verdi had never given them ironic characters, and did not do so until Iago, twenty years later—to a libretto by Arrigo Boito. Coincidence?

The part demands a singing actor of the highest, subtlest caliber, though it rewards a thundering bass who can twist words as he fulminates. The New York City Opera scored one of its grandest triumphs with the Tito Capobianco production in 1968: A whole lot of show in a winningly minimal staging. There were projections and such, a swirling Earth, a portable Maypole, a bursting balloon of a globe, a couple of horses. At NYCO, Mefistofele starred the unforgettable Norman Treigle.

His successor, a young debutante named Samuel Ramey, had the finest bass chops of his generation. Decades later, he sang Mefistofele in San Francisco in Robert Carsen’s the-world-as-an-opera-house staging, and at the Met when the latter borrowed the Carsen production. That’s the last New York has heard of it. San Francisco still has the Carsen; it was revived there last month for Ildar Abdrazakov; rumor has it returning to the Met in a couple of years.

I’m grateful to the Collegiate Chorale for bringing this music back to a New York stage, reminding us of how deliciously oddball it is, but their performance did not overwhelm: A chorus in this opera should be more forthright with the demonic despairs. James Bagwell led the American Symphony Orchestra in an unobjectionable reading that brought smiles with its moments of intentional naiveté (the Manhattan Girls Chorus made a charming bunch of cherubs), but left the harpist and the percussionist a bit isolated from the orchestral mixture, their intrusions seeming marginal commentaries to the gospel text.

Arturo Chacón-Cruz, who sang Faust, has an interesting vibrato and clear high notes, but he had to force his light tenor into uncomfortable regions where it turned abrasive. The power-tenor repertory is not for him. He sounded at his best in “Lontano, lontano,” blending well with Julianna Di Giacomo’s Margherita. Di Giacomo caught Margherita’s shyness well, and her romantic alarm as well, but there was no ill-repressed hysteria in her “L’altra notte.”

Mind you, it was a first outing and a tough assignment, which included Elena as well—as is often done, since neither role by itself is a prima donna assignment. Her voice is large and beautiful, and her dramatic instincts were evident in Elena’s aria of the fall of Troy, but she seemed disinclined to sing anything softly. Teresa Buchholz displayed some lovely contralto notes as Pantalis, but she was barely audible as Marta in the quartet. Joseph Michael Brent sang a competent Wagner.

Even in this less than top-notch performance, it was a pleasure to be reminded how unusual and how worthy a score this is.

41 comments

  • Chanterelle says:

    You have to give Owens a break — he was obviously way, way under the weather, probably trussed under his suit. The attitude and all the notes were there. Even Abdrazakhov in San Francisco had less impact at the bottom of his range (I hate to worry whether Meph can actually hit all the notes). Can’t wait to hear Owens do this when he’s back in form.

    • kashania says:

      Everything that I’ve read about the performance suggests that he was under the weather and visibly in some kind of pain or distress. I find it odd that the review doesn’t mention that.

      • operaassport says:

        Was it announced as such? I think unless it was, the reviewer is under no obligation to assume so and reference it. If it was announced, then it’s critic negligence not to mention it.

        • Chanterelle says:

          It wasn’t announced, but he limped slowly onstage and gingerly settled onto a high stool, where he stayed till the end of the act. One could at least mention the appearance of physical discomfort.

          • operaassport says:

            No, I don’t think a critic is under any obligation to mention something like that. It assumes too much.

            • arepo says:

              operaassport:
              Clearly you were not there or you would have been blind not to notice the pain he was suffering from the git-go.
              Even his compatriots were patting him on the back and helping him to walk offstage.
              Frankly, I find it surprising that the writer did not mention this obvious malady and wonder where he must have been sitting to have missed it.
              Eric Owens is normally one to give every bit of his character to his roles and then some. He sat as a stone with his eyes closed much of the time (I was to the right of him on the 5th row) and was in obvious pain. It was a wonder that he got through it.
              I just hope that whatever it was, he is now okay.

            • la vociaccia says:

              Arepo: Operaassport isn’t denying that Owens may have been indisposed, but the point is, unless an announcement as made, the reviewer is under no obligation to extrapolate. It’s the gamble an artist makes: make an announcement and have everyone lower their expectations (but perhaps be forgiving), or make no announcement and risk the audience assuming you were just lousy.

            • bluecabochon says:

              He was recovered enough to leave his apartment in order to attend the opening of FroSch on Thursday night, if that’s a comfort.

      • Belfagor says:

        Great review -- but:

        The worst thing about this performance was the horrific conducting. I overheard (from someone involved in putting on the show) that they were terrified of hitting the 11 o clock curfew, which would have meant overtime, so that’s why I’m assuming the maestro smashed his way through the score with all the sensitivity and nuance of Germany annexing Poland. I assume he has the cushy posting at Bard so as to make Leon Botstein appear like a real conductor…….

        Boito’s score is fascinating, but needs a great deal of help. He couldn’t construct a musical paragraph if his life depended on it, so it needs real sensitivity not to make the piece sound just inept, and to realize the loony vitality that keeps it flowing. The scoring is odd too, it needs very careful balancing so not to sound tinny, or overdressed, or just bizarre (having only 2 double-basses was a big mistake, as they sounded like soloists as there is much odd writing down in the nether regions). None of this was addressed.

        I agree with the consensus about the singing -- Di Giacomo has a lovely timbre, but the top was unwieldy (why was the top C in the Helen of Troy duet missing?) -- I enjoy Chacun-Cruz, his phrasing was musical when the conductor gave him time to breathe…….enough said about Owens, who was clearly in discomfort.

        And is it possible that there is a choral society in NYC without any gay input? I mean, the total lack of flair, stage sense, and appalling presentation of their events (I, too, saw the Beatrice) would suggest this. I ain’t going to another of their events -- no fear……….

        • Camille says:

          Aha! “The horrific conducting”!!!!! That is what was done to my darling Beatrice last December and I was not about to suffer THAT again!

          Plus the carving up of the score as if it were a week old Thanksgiving turkey, especially when a reading of that score is a rarity around these parts anymore.

          Very peeved at that one last year and now with the reports on this one, I shall further desist.

          And Mr. Schiff’s Beethoven was better than any opera performance I have seen for a coon’s age. Finis.

        • DermotMalcolm says:

          I too am fond of Mefistofele. I saw it at NYCO with Ramey in 1977. And I have listened to it a lot, on LPs, and most recently to the Treigle, Rudel recording, on CD and iTunes. I assume that Eric Owens was quite ill. We must thank him for being a trouper. The 200 performers and 2,800 audience members were depending on him.
          About the opera: The Prologue and Epilogue are thrilling. But everything else is considerably less than that. Hearing the Prologue in Heaven in the heaven of Carnegie Hall on Wednesday was a great acoustical experience. But it is an opera, and a concert performance reveals the flaws in the score and concept. Between the Prologue and the Epilogue, the music gets awfully simplistic and repetitive. Listening at home, one can zone out or fast forward or clean up the place, etc. Seeing it in a good production in the theater, one can overlook the dead passages. Not so, stuck in your seat at Carnegie.
          The concert was in two parts. I bolted at intermission. I am sorry to have missed the Epilogue. Was it as thrilling as the Prologue? But getting there was for me not worth the tedium and irritation of a lot of intervening uninspired passages and a sickly Mefistofele.
          A question for Parterrians more learned in things musical than I: I was struck that Boito wrote for the chorus to sing always in unison, not in harmony. Unison works well enough in the Prologue, since there are two choruses and Mefistofele. But it drove me crazy in the Witches Sabbath: 100 people singing the same damn note. About harmony: Beethoven uses it in Fidelio in the Prisoners’ Chorus; Verdi in “Va Pensiero”; Wagner in Meistersinger.

          • Belfagor says:

            Well, Bernard Haitink did it in concert at the Royal Opera in 98, or 99 -- with Samuel Ramey, Richard Margison, Nelly Miricioiu, and Patricia Bardon doubling as Marta and Elena, and he shaped the piece, and really took it seriously, and it worked beautifully -- and frankly, he is not a conductor who I favoured in Italian opera -- but he shaped those square choral paragraphs so expertly that many people said that at the conclusion of the Epilogue, whether Mahler might have used it as a source for his ‘Resurrection’ symphony -- certainly the gates of heaven opened with a spine-tingling sense of the numinous that night -- and he worked wonders with the Witches Sabbath, accentuating all the crudeness and bizarre and eldritch scoring.

            The outfit in NY needs a better conductor -- versed in the rep, and someone with passion who can respond to the outsize theatricality and fallible composing in a score like ‘Mefistofele’……

            • Camille says:

              Mr. Belfagor, AIUTO!
              Please, per carità, direct to the place you put Dottor Miracol or whatever the name of that Alfano opera was, for I have been searching for it for over an hour now and cannot find it!!!
              I do quite like Carla Gavazzi a lot, she is a simpaticona.

              Thank you, and I am sorry to bother you.
              Camille, chagrined

            • Belfagor says:

              Dottor Antonio -- (I can’t remember what it’s about!!) -- but it’s here: Listen to that opening -- Bernard Herrmann eat your heart out -- Psycho meets Vertigo, or WHAT?!!!


            • Camille says:

              o MERCY! Thank you so much. I have looked in all the wrong places and wasted an hour doing so, so many thanks. Herrmann is someone I admire greatly, so this will be fun!!!!

              SAKÙNTALA!!!!!!!!

              [It should be a war cry.]

            • MontyNostry says:

              Eldritch -- that’s a new word on me, and I’d never have thought of using ‘numinous’ in a sentence. Caro Belfie, you never cease to amaze me.

            • Camille says:

              Mr. Belfagor,
              It meanders, and someone is supposed to depart for Palermo all the time and I didn’t listen intently to the dialogue and will have to go back to wash, rinse and repeat several more times, but I really rather liked parts of it. Particularly around the hour mark when Prandelli had a lovely kind of arioso and then came in Gavazzi. Alfano was more kind to the tenor than soprano in this one. The ending really does sound like some kind of movie music and I wonder if he worked for the industry in Italy. Maybe not, as he was apparently the director of several conservatories and for two years in the early forties the sovraintendente at Teatro dell’Opera in Palermo. Interestingly, he was a Mason of the Scottish Rite Temple and of the 33rd degree! Maybe that was AFTER Sakùntala, or maybe that is what led up to it!

              At any rate, much more worthy than that deadly boring mishmash, Mese Mariano, which Monsieur Camille and I suffered through at the Spoleto festival this past summer. Giordano on total Xanax or something….such a disappointment!!!

              Gavazzi is such a lovely singer, nonostante that quivery vibrato, and I think Prandelli really sounds quite good here!

              Thank you and I will be listening more and have more to say regarding the story later on.

            • Belfagor says:

              Thank you both, Camille and Monty! No, all of Alfano meanders madly, you can tune out and hopefully wake up for the choice bits -- or possibly miss them altogether. There was an unreadable English biography of Alfano which had plot summaries of all his operas, but I trashed it long ago -- there was one, I think, based on Little Lord Fauntleroy (L’ultimo Lord’?) and an early one that got revised with a new title or something, but nothing that is a masterpiece. Still, I shall be grateful to hear Sakuntala live, just for the sake of it!

              As for Mese Mariano, it is a runt of an opera…not worth the bother -- all those poor members of the giovane scuola, they went off the boil so early, and then lived on and on and on, long after their tradition disappeared, but they did keep trying………..

    • brooklyndivo says:

      I must say I enjoyed Boito’s Mefistofele very much. As for Owens, he was in some sort of physical discomfort from the way he moved (back is my best guess). With that said, I must say he does have the part down but without conviction or emotions. I feel the same way about his Alberich the emotions are not there. When I heard him sing Sharpless I was moved at the grace and warmth of his voice. I think more lyrical roles for him to show off his beautiful voice.

      I had no problems with the conducting or the orchestra, both were really good as was the chorus.

      I diagree with the reviewer when it comes to Di Giacomo’s piano singing. This is a beautiful, well focus, major voice. She sang a beautiful performance from beginning to end. I was really impressed with everything she did. I remember seeing her in Stiffelio a couple of seasons ago at the Met and thought wow. In her voice you heard the pitty and madness in her aria (yes the C was missing from the duet but I didn’t mind).

      Mr. Chacon-Cruz was really good as Faust, however I do feel the role is a bit big for him right now. He has a really beautiful lyric voice that projects with solid technique. I’d love to hear him in more Lyrical roles and await his debut at the Met soon.

  • Camille says:

    I just love this adorably quirky opera and did not attend because of last year’s largely limp, lackluster Beatrice di Tenda. This review tells me there was no error in my judgment in betting my money on the András Schiff recital instead, which was great stuff.

    Lucky Londoners will get a chance to hear the same programme:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/9664014/Andras-Schiff-climbing-two-Himalayan-peaks-one-after-the-other.html

    And yes, Mr. Ramey was diabolically good in this part and will be hard to beat. I eternally regret having missed the great Mr. Treigle in the same role, back in my impecunious school daze, such was impossible. I did have the opportunity of hearing him as the Mephisto in Faust, some consolation however, and his was a performance that went into Camille’s Annals of Greatest Performances. He was otherwordly.

    Mr. Owens has a ways to go yet, but I wish him well and hope the best for him. He makes, the most satisfying of all the host/esses on the Met HD performances, by a landslide. His serious mien and beautiful speaking voice and manner make you aware of the business at hand instead of imploring one to “love me”, as do those other unmentionable hostesses with the mostess.

    • MontyNostry says:

      You can never get tickets for Schiff’s recitals in London. The Wigmore groupies snap ‘em all up as soon as they go on sale.

      • Camille says:

        Tell them Camille sent you.

        Seriously, isn’t there that indecent ticket bartering frenzy outside awitmore as there is at Carnegie Hall? One can always get in if prepared to deal with that.

        • MontyNostry says:

          Wigmore Hall is far too genteel for that, Cami. And we don’t have ticket bartering going on at our airports either -- with offers of free stays in hotels if you give up your ticket on the overbooked plane!

        • Camille says:

          awitmore = Wigmore

          Perdona. It’s dak in the barroom.

          • grimoaldo says:

            Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium seats 2,804 -Wigmore Hall’s total capacity is 537 so they are very different venues.

            • Camille says:

              Then mortgage the manor, but get in to hear it. You shan’t hear the like again soon.

              For an encore, not some little bagatelle, but the entirety of the Arietta from Beethoven’s Sonata no. 32, Opus 111.

              Ain’t no Für Elise, that!

          • Ilka Saro says:

            ’tis better to light on i-phone than to curse the dakness

  • grimoaldo says:

    Liceu 1987 with Bonaldo Giaiotti and Montserrat Caballé

    Caballé’s magnificent performance of the great tragic aria /mad scence “L’altra notte” starts at about one hour twenty six. Oh.My. God. It sends tears pouring down my cheeks. The audience goes nuts.

  • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati says:

    My first MEFISTOFELE was a concert version at Carnegie Hall (1966) with young, opulent Nicolai Ghiaurov, Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi. An impressive cast hard to top! Then in 1969 (?) came the wonderful Norman Treigle at New York City Opera. He looked like a skinny bag of bones, out of which poured a very large, imposing and Mephistophelian voice.

    • Camille says:

      Beata Benedetta,
      I wish to thank you for your remembrance of Birgit Nilsson’s performance as Elektra, in a few days ago thread. It helped to complete my image of the performance, which was, in a word, superb.

      Lucky you to have witnessed it!

      Thank you,
      Camille

      • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati says:

        Dear Camille,

        You are very welcome. Those Birgit ELEKTRA nights were impressive.

        I haven’t read every post and perhaps it’s previously been mentioned but there’s a stunning pirate from Vienna (1965) which really captures what those nights were all about. It features Birgit, Leonie, Regina Resnik as Mama, and with star turns by Wolfgang Windgassen and Eberhard Wächter as Aegisth and Orest. The Serving Maids include Gundula Janowitz and Danica Mastilovic! The entire shebang is in the capable hands of Dr. Böhm. As we used to say back then, “Demented!”

  • phoenix says:

    Yohalem again makes this site worth reading -- coming to New York after I left the SF Conservatory of Music in 1968 Mefistofele at NYCO was going on. Not (at that time) particularly interested in music history, I was very surprised to find out it was composed in 1868 -- from the score’s writing I assumed it was from somewhere around 1890. But I don’t agree that it is “out on a limb” -- I hear it as the progenitor of a distinctly verismo style, particularly evidenced Zandonai & Alfano, whereas an opera such as Gioconda (as wonderful as it is) remains way out on a limb.
    - Nothing was announced about Mr. Owens being “indisposed”? Did anyone read or hear anything more verifiable about this (don’t worry, New York’s media shield laws are among the strongest in the nation).

  • Salome Where She Danced says:

    EO was certainly off his game in September’s Deutsche Oper “Ring” (Alberich). He was the only cast member to get booed (briefly and by a small claque).