Cher Public

Devil may not care

The subject of timidity has been in my thoughts in these waning days of February 2017. One would almost think there had been some big announcement recently, preceded by a series of smaller ones, to turn a U.S.-based opera fan’s thoughts in this direction. 

The grass is always greener, as they say, and Nikolaus Bachler’s Bavarian State Opera, so prominent on the international scene with streaming broadcasts and DVD/Blu-ray releases, has been nothing if not bold in this decade. I have followed from afar the work done in Munich by some of the world’s best singers and conductors, working with the art form’s celebrated, often controversial directors. The results are not invariably successful (more on that in a moment), but they usually are lively and compelling, rarely forgettable.

Herr Bachler assumed his post as intendant in 2008, and in an interview the following year he laid out his philosophy: “You might say that public taste is always behind its time. […] Whenever someone talks about being true to the time or to the composer, they mean the interpretive style from 20 and 30 years ago […] To go on stage means to interpret. To do nothing–even to be reactionary–is inevitably an interpretation.” Clearly, this was a man who would not be guided by “should” and “supposed to” in what he programmed–or, rather, he would be guided by different shoulds and supposed-tos from the ones expressed in certain internet forums.

I suppose we all think of ourselves as discerning, so “the discerning opera fan” is a meaningless term. However, comments I have read over the years suggest that the readership of parterre box is largely (not exclusively) composed of a particular kind of discerning opera fan, one in line with the views of Herr Bachler and interested in the directors of his tenure (including Alden, Bieito, Carsen, Castellucci, Neuenfels, Tcherniakov, Warlikowski). It is easy for these fans to be so worn down by the lazy and the obvious that they reflexively approve of something just because it confounds expectations, because no one has done something quite this way yet.

“Discernment within discernment” is something to hold tight to. Ambition is commendable, but it only gets the rocket in the air. The rocket has to stay aloft and to land, preferably in one piece.

New to DVD, a 2015 Bavarian State Opera production of Mefistofele by director Roland Schwab (b. 1969) was said to be Munich’s first staging of Boito’s opera. Mefistofele was the only operatic score the great librettist (and much more) saw to completion, and it followed a tortuous path beginning in the 1860s, with composition, a disastrous premiere, considerable cutting and recomposition, a more successful premiere, and further revisions before the composer arrived at his final thoughts in 1881.

Even in the definitive form in which it is best known, Mefistofele is an uneven work, with powerful and novel musical passages sitting alongside banal and superficial ones. One suspects even the banal parts did not come easily to Boito. Words, not music, were his métier. An admirer of Mefistofele focuses on the good and passes lightly over what remains.

One would have to do the same to admire Schwab’s production. Mefistofele was this Ruth Berghaus pupil’s Bavarian State Opera debut, and I was unfamiliar with his work before watching the DVD. The effort does suggest talent and smarts, but to my mind he has tried to “help” Mefistofele in ways that blunt and mute the opera’s impact.

The beginning is promising. Boito’s Prologue in Heaven is an alertly directed Prologue in Hell. Well, why not? Everything, even hell, is a part of creation, and thus “in heaven,” if one goes along with the doctrine. The cluttered setting looks like the aftermath of a rave, with curved metal scaffolding on either side forming a tunnel upstage. Mefistofele is outfitted like an aging early-’80s New Romantic, and his many supernumerary companions resemble nightlife denizens from perhaps half a generation later. Mefistofele is clearly master of this domain, and his young subjects dote on him, but there is an air of lassitude and tedium about it all; the thrill is gone.

A shellac disc plays on Mefistofele’s gramophone, and the music of the prologue alternates distant, tinny fanfares (with popping record sound effects) with the full wallop of the Bavarian State Opera’s impressive orchestra. Mefistofele gestures and a movie screen rises, debris tumbling off it. The group sits with backs to the audience and watches film images cryptically strung together. The images convey wonder and foreboding: the cosmos, a plane in flight, clouds, the face of John Lennon (they wouldn’t give peace a chance; that was just a dream some of us had), the New York skyline at dawn, the plane again in freeze-frame. The morning of 9/11?

As Mefistofele challenges God, the images on the movie screen become shaky views of the orchestra and audience in the opera house. When Mefistofele sings of the “puny ruler,” the young maestro’s image is displayed. Faust makes a mute early appearance in the prologue, as Mefistofele’s minions prepare him for controlled experiment or sacrifice.

Unfortunately, after this intriguing beginning, the air begins to leak out of the balloon. Piero Vinciguerra‘s unit set with its curved metal is dressed up with whatever is needed for the four acts and the epilogue: an Oktoberfest carousel, a table for the lovers’ dinner, memorial flowers and a teddy bear for Margherita’s murdered baby (“Warum?” reads the inscription). The scenic economy allows Schwab to string some scenes together into suites (such as the garden, Witches’ Sabbath and prison scenes), but some elaborate unit sets grow tiresome to look at as the hours pass, and I fear Vinciguerra’s is one of these.

Mute characters clutter up almost every scene. Several of the supernumeraries have good stage presence, but the overpopulation hurts Boito’s built-in contrast between crowded scenes and more intimate encounters. At least we can always pick out the principal singers: they are the ones rooted in a spot while everyone else is skittering and writhing. This Faust is not visibly aged when he meets Mefistofele, and gets no younger in their bargain, but he does end in a geriatric care center. Faust’s zombie-like unscripted appearance in the prologue had suggested he was either summoned or conjured for this wager, but nothing in the later scenes clarifies this.

Schwab tried, arguably too hard, to achieve something here that was both spectacular for the eye and stimulating for the mind. There are striking visual effects (the lovers’ dinner table bursts into flame; rows of Sabbath revelers rise and descend in waves via hydraulic lifts), and there is commentary informed by Schwab’s (our) era, but the whole is fussy rather than elucidating and enlightening. Even some sure-fire moments are misjudged: Wagner and Faust observe and talk about the grey friar whom Wagner finds innocuous and Faust finds frightening, and Mefistofele is lurking and hovering behind them, making penny-dreadful gestures.

There is something undeniably touching about the way it all works out, with Faust surrounded by demented old folks. Elena and Pantalis, kindly nurses or aides, play catch with the residents. In the epilogue, Faust renounces Mefistofele, and the defeated devil removes his record from the turntable and breaks it. The experiment ran as long as it took to listen to a classic set of Mefistofele, I suppose. Faust/Schwab finds something noble in the state in which many of us will go out: diminished, senescent, forgetting and perhaps forgotten, but true to the natural order of things, and precious for having lived, grown, survived.

I wish I could make a case that what we see between the prologue and the epilogue shows the rigorous work of shaping a production with continuity and momentum, and the good judgment of knowing when to quit, or at least to do less. Much of the middle seems to me erratic and unfocused. The kindness I can pay before moving on is that I would be curious to see a second example of this director’s work.

Efficiency all by itself goes some way in Mefistofele, with its large orchestral and choral forces, and Omer Meir Wellber gives a respectable accounting of himself. Only a few great conductors of my experience have persuaded me for the duration that Boito’s score is cohesive, but Wellber keeps a good grip on proceedings and accompanies singers well in softer sections. He can overwhelm elsewhere, but this could be a recording balance issue.

The Bavarian State Opera tends to fill supporting roles with good value. Karine Babajanyan, the Elena, battles the orchestra and does not always win, but brings warmth and poignancy to her scene; she is the more appealing of Faust’s loves here. Mezzo Heike Grötzinger, always a welcome presence, has some fun with a Marta who eagerly embraces corruption and has against-the-wall sex with Mefistofele. I am unsure if Marta in this staging is what she usually is (Margherita’s minder) or one of the several minions following Mefistofele around. Perhaps she begins as one thing and becomes the other.

Considering that the three headliners are names familiar to anyone who follows opera singing today, it is surprising this is not more of a singers’ show. One expects, in Mefistofele, the singing to make more of an impact. Two of the three famous leads bring a measure of disappointment.

Kristine Opolais does not convincingly suggest Margherita’s shyness and ingenuous nature in the garden, which I believe but am not sure was the goal (a theme has emerged, you see), but her “L’atra notte in fondo al mare” is impressive for intensity and dramatic intention, a well-worked-out bit of stage acting. The sound from the Latvian’s throat, unfortunately, limits her effectiveness: dry, limited in dynamics from mezzo-forte to screamed, bespeaking tension and perhaps overwork.

René Pape‘s Mefistofele is hampered by a puzzling lack of presence, both dramatic and vocal. In some roles, a case can be made that what he is doing is dignified or elegantly restrained. It often reads to me, rather, as lack of engagement, but I will admit of a defense in his kingly/priestly German characters. For the Boito devil, one expects either malevolent wit and relish or something interesting in its place. The production may have been tailored for the low-key, cynical take Pape could be expected to provide (the characterization he gave the Gounod devil in New York, 2011), but it plays as a walk-through.

Some attractive sounds in the middle voice alternate with patchy tone and a top that is not as freely accessed as in this singer’s best showings. “Son lo spirit,” which takes Pape’s relatively high bass lower than where it most happily sits, is just a good vocal technician managing, making the notes.

The DVD does record one great thing, and a very great thing it is: Joseph Calleja‘s Faust. Here are ease, shimmer, beautifully sculpted phrasing, all in the service of expression and meaning. The acting could still improve, but when the singing is on this level, it matters less.

I note the date, and I suppose it is not a reach that Calleja’s mind was occupied with things this opera and this production touch upon: youth and age, lessons and wisdom, brotherhood and love. Earlier in the year, his countryman and only teacher, the fine mid-20th-century Maltese tenor Paul Asciak, had died at 92. Calleja and Asciak had been student and mentor from the time Calleja was 15. Even in advanced age, Asciak would travel far to see his star pupil and friend whenever he could, as the younger tenor established an international career.

In 2012, Asciak wrote, “I join the proud people of my native island home, which has already produced other internationally recognized singers, in the hope of the fulfillment of the dream of one day having one of the world’s leading tenors hailing from our land. From the quality of Calleja’s singing in [the Decca album Be My Love] it seems we are not far from achieving this.” Calleja’s Faust has the quality of a promise remembered and kept, the voice glowing and flickering like an eternal flame lovingly tended. Asciak would again have had reason to be very proud.

The productions Herr Bachler’s house presents, at their best, are reasons to keep going to the opera. Performances such as Calleja’s Faust count for even more. They are reasons to keep going.