Cher Public

The devil is in the details

Certain operas are better in theory than practice. Boito’s Mefistofele has some undoubtedly fine tunes, and is perhaps neck-and-neck with Boris Godunov as a top bass star vehicle. But as an opera, it only works in fits and starts. For one, the fidelity to Goethe’s Faust gives the libretto a rather episodic, detached feel.

Gounod’s Faust might be a lot cheesier but it’s also more tightly focused and thus better theater. Boito’s opera has some some stunning choral work in the Prologue and Epilogue, a famous tune in Margherita’s lament “La altra notte” and an extremely enjoyable “Walpurgis Nacht” act but also a lot of filler. It’s not a long opera but it feels endless.  

San Francisco Opera’s 2013 revival of Robert Carsen’s by now classic production is also one that looks better on paper than in actual execution. The production is as fine as ever—a very effective, timeless production that has enough doses of camp and visual splendor to maintain interest. Carsen goes farther with the by-now overdone “show within a show” trope than most directors—there are nods to commedia dell’arte, baroque opera, and French grand opera traditions as Faust and Mefistofele make their journey to hell and back. Costumes and sets seem to have been refurbished and look bright, colorful, and vibrant. No complaints about this production.

The musical values however leave something to be desired. When this production opened it was a star vehicle for Samuel Ramey. In his prime he was a genuine bass with charisma to burn. Ildar Abdrazakov seems to be under the mistaken impression that he’s more than a pleasant lightweight bass-baritone. He’s cute, and looks fairly good shirtless but the voice lacks the weight and gravitas that this part needs. He also lacks the kind of joyful malignity that I imagine famous scene-stealer Fedor Chaliapin brought to the part. Although a review in the invaluable Met archives seems to indicate that even Chaliapin couldn’t stave off the boredom of Boito’s opera:

A pity that the great Russian basso should have come forward in a work so tiring to the average listener, though full of interest to the student of operatic history. True, the character of Boito’s spirit of evil, a big, heavy brutish creature, forceful and mighty, but without the subtleties we are wont to associate with Mephisto, gave to Chaliapin an excellent opportunity for displaying his gigantic frame, his magnetic temperament, his dramatic power in big effects and his remarkably robust voice. But the ordeal of taking into the bargain so many dreary wastes, where music fair to make up for dramatic deficiencies, proved too much for a large portion of the audience, and before the close of the presentation rows upon rows of chairs in the parquet gaped empty.

Abdrazakov is just working with his voice’s built-in limitations. Ramón Vargas (Faust) and Patricia Racette (Margherita/Elena) are two fine artists whose voices are in precipitous decline. Vargas has recently cancelled a slew of engagements, and one can hear the troubles in this video: a strained, whitish top, a wobble, and (most dismaying) even his middle now lacks the sweet, ingratiating timbre that used to be his trademark. Vargas was never much dramatically and his Faust is a total cipher. I hope this treasurable tenor can recover some of his vocal goods.

Racette is even more problematic. I know she’s a San Francisco Opera institution, beloved not just for her devotion to the company but for her championing of new works and steadfast professionalism. That being said, she’s pretty much unlistenable at this point. The always smallish, vinegary lyric soprano now sounds unbearably shrill and curdled and any sustained tones bring out a Callas-like wobble. “L’altra notte” sounded like my cat when she whines for some tuna. And even her dramatic instincts fail her—she overplays both the girlishness of Marguerite and the glamour of Elena without being convincing as either.

Conductor Nicola Liusotti and chorus master Ian Robertson are the stars of the evening—the chorus and orchestra sounded amazing. In fact, they overpowered the small-scale singers in almost every scene. Which was a mixed bag—all it did was serve as a reminder that this opera calls for grander soloists than the ones cast. The splendor of Carsen’s production is another double-edged sword. This Mefistofele was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  • Patrick Mack

    Good one. But she WISHES she had Callas’ wobble. It is a great production but you called it with this cast. Unfortunate at best.

  • skoc211

    Any excuse to post this one, especially on a Monday morning.

  • Operngasse

    Having missed the original production with Samuel Ramey, I was able to see the 2013, primarily to see the opera and this production that the singers.

    I totally agree with the statement that Conductor Nicola Liusotti and chorus master Ian Robertson were the stars of the evening, along with the production itself. The Heaven scenes absolutely brought down the house.

    I don’t believe that Youtube has a posting of either scene from 2013, but the clip from the original gives some sense of what it was like to sit in the house as the waves or sound from the orchestra and chorus literally engulfed the listener.

  • Let’s not forget the lovely “Lontano, lontano” duet when listing the work’s merits.

    I have not heard Racette in this but when she sang Butterfly in Toronto in October, she wasn’t what I would call “unlistenable”. She’s certainly past her best but she still put on a game effort. Perhaps, her familiarity with Cio-Cio San (and the associated “muscle memory”) made that an easier assignment than the Margherita under question.

    • Bill

      Having seen the original City Opera production at the State Theater and hearing the lovely Lontano, lontono duet sung by Tebaldi and Campora in Newark NJ even earlier. I have always liked this opera (last seen in Budapest where it is in the repertory and will be repeated in May with other Faust and Devil operas).
      I am sorry to hear that Vargas, an admirable tenor, is in perilous vocal estate now (knowing he has
      cancelled a string of high profile performances).
      I have found Racette in broadcasts from SF etc now
      completely unlistenable with her persistent wobble --
      hence, when she sings at the Met, I simply do not attend. I know she was a cherishable artist and
      in conversation on the radio, a knowledgeable and
      sympathetic artist. It is strange with wobbles --
      with some artists when it develops it is truly
      painful to the ears -- examples Sills at the very end,
      Ramey at the very end -- and yet Gwyneth Jones
      throughout much of her career had a wobble (though
      not on the high notes) which was sometimes very
      intrusive and sometimes under complete control and
      it did not bother me very much when it occurred --
      and I heard her from her debut Fidelio in Vienna
      in the winter of 1966 (no wobble then) until she
      gave up leading roles. Sills and Racette probably
      developed wobbles by singing roles slightly bigger than the borders their natural voices should have allowed. That does not mean they became incapable of being compelling dramatically on stage in their later career roles. Callas wobbled sometimes particularly when singing the highest notes -- but not always. Maybe Racette sounds better live than on tape these days. But Poison Ivy is correct in discerning a sub par vocal performance.

      One can always go back to the Siepi, Tebaldi, del
      Monaco Mephistofele on recording conducted by Tullio Serafin -- the first instance I had heard that opera and sung in a gutsy manner -- not subtle but oh those
      Choruses !!

  • Ilka Saro

    Thanks for this review. Just looking at the names of the 3 principles, that I would agree with the assessment without hearing any of the release. All 3 singers are basically lyrics. The end result, aside from the wear and tear on their vocal cords, is that their performances in spinto or dramatic parts always sound odd. Racette’s Elizabeth in Don Carlo? Just odd, often sounding outparted. Vargas in Don Carlo? Shrieking. And odd.

    20 years ago both Racette and Vargas had such beauty in their tone. Thrown away.

    Abdrazakov has no dramatic weight in his sound, especially not in bass parts. He was vocally quite bland in Prince Igor. I will give him credit for a very artfully sung King in Anna Bolena, but that doesn’t make him a Mefistofele.

    • manou

      My principal thought was: are these the Three Principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought?

      (Yes, I know you wish you had Gavrilo Prinzip at hand to get rid of me…)

      • Ilka Saro

        Hahaha! You’re right. And I even thought about that. But like certain chunks of the alphabetical order (“hijk”?? impossible to remember!) I would only drive myself insane trying to remember which is which. Damn the spelling, full speed ahead.

  • Milady DeWinter

    “20 years ago both Racette and Vargas had such beauty in their tone--I agree Ilka. And 20 years ago, Racette sounded a lot like Sills (minus the coloratura extension) in the middle of her voice, before Sills’ tone began to spead.
    And MUST we invoke Callas every time a singer develops a wobble? While she did develop one (and true,had an embryonic one all along, even in the fat days)the rest of the voice, notably the middle singing tone, did not develop a wobble or sound shredded and blown out.

  • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati

    It needs a strong cast, particularly the title role, which the San Francisco most certainly is/was not. Abdrazakov may be a star bass in 2015 but is kind of lyric and underpowered compared to a Chaliapin, Siepi, Ghiaurov, De Angelis, Pinza, Treigle or Pasero — all notable Mefistofeles both vocally and with big personalities that leaped across the footlights. I also thought Abdrazakov was kind of pale and ineffective (vocally and dramatically) when I saw him as ATTILA with Muti. There is live recorded evidence (1926-1928) from Covent Garden of Chaliapin in the title role of MEFISTOFELE and he just jumps out of the grooves at you. There are also live exceprts from London in the same period with Chaliapin as BORIS and Gounod’s FAUST. I grew up with the London/Decca recording with Siepi, Tebaldi and Del Monaco, conducted by Serafin.

    My first MEFSTOFELE was a concert version in Carnegie Hall in 1966 with the drop-dead cast of Nicolai Ghiaurov, Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi. It was not boring.

    Next came New York City Opera’s famous 1969 production with Norman Treigle. I could not believe the sheer volume emanating from what looked like an almost anorexic, skinny bag of bones. Treigle had one of, if not the greatest triumphs of his career and again, there was voice plus personality.

    In 1976 I trotted out to Newark for MEFISTOFELE with Jerome Hines, Giuseppe Campora and Magda Olivero.

    I think the opera can definitely work but it needs more than Abdrazakov, with both Racette and Alvarez on the wane.

  • norma54

    I am recommending this DVD/Blu-ray HEARTILY to anyone who loves this production. Who knows is they are or not……but costumes and scenery look brand new. As someone who has owned and treasured for years the filming with Ramey … and ‘would never part with it….. this is a welcome, exquisite filming of a production that has been all over the world. Not only in widescreen but in vibrant HD, the color and clarity are jaw-dropping. Mr. Abdrazakov may perhaps be lighter in voice than Ramey …. but he is certainly viable vocally and visually sexy in his own hunky way. Vargas is Vargas…..in a role that doesn’t require much depth or insight. He sings with passion and style which is often a rarity these days. The big negative in this production is Patricia Racette who is way past her vocal prime….. a prime that perhaps was never right for this role in the first place, with every note above an F speading and pulsing. Racette aside, there is a lot to hear and see that is wonderful, including (filmed for the first time) the outrageous costumes complete with male genitalia usually cut (sorry) or covered… in the Hell Scene. You will want your hand on the PAUSE button for a great deal of it!! Which version to buy? No problem whatsoever: BOTH !!!

  • Archaeopteryx

    The opera is not per se boring, it just deserves careful, intense, intelligent and energetic performers who love -- and believe in! -- the piece and bring the best out of it.

  • They would all benefit from that, whether second tier or first. But I certainly didn’t find Mefisto boring, even in concert -- and surely one staged performance of something so rarely staged wouldn’t be too much to sit through.

    • PCally

      I agree in theory but this is the second video of an already famous production that has been around for decades. There are other works that are performed even less than this one, in the U.S. at least, and I’d rather see a video of something new then a basic replica of something old.

  • DIscher-Fieskau

    I can’t argue with the comments about Racette’s voice overall, but I think the SF “Mefistofele” was a worse than usual situation with her taking over Dolores Claiborne which was running concurrently. I saw a performance on a Sunday matinee after which she had sung Dolores the night before. She sounded exhausted. In fact, I wonder if she did herself permanent damage; a Butterfly done last summer had a terrible wobble and indeterminate pitch on anything above an A-flat.

    Re: the Decca/London recording with Siepi, Tebaldi, del Monaco conducted by Serafin; the Accademia di Santa Cecilia had an OK orchestra (later turned into a top flight one) but one of the world’s great choruses. Some recordings that are not necessarily my favorite overall in terms of conducting and solo singing (like the Erede “Turandot,” the Previtali “Gioconda”) are ones I still enjoy listening to because of the magnificent choral work, usually beautifully caught by Decca’s stereo recording. Their singing in that “Mefistofele” is no exception. It’s still a really splendid group, as you can hear on Pappano’s recordings of the Rossini “Stabat Mater,” Verdi “Requiem” and, no doubt, in the Pappano “Aida” when that recording is released.

  • pasavant

    Why do opera companies continue to engage singers who can no longer sing? Do opera companies pay low fees to such singers and thus hope to make a few extra bucks off the deal? Racette is being given a new production at the Met this year, and I believe is scheduled to murder something next year as well. And Giordani is still scheduled for next season at the Met. The list goes on and on. And not only at the Met. I just don’t understand it

    • mia apulia

      maybe they’re hoping for a miracle like Olivero at 65