Mefistofele is Devilishly Fun

The devil's work, photo @ Karen Almond
It's one of those sacrilegious facts of life: the devil inspires great literature. Milton's Paradise Lost. Dante's Divine Comedy. On the musical front the devil inspires composers to have fun. Every single "devil's" work in music I can think of is a guilty pleasure. Maybe the best example is Gounod's Faust, in which the constipated Victorian soap opera of Faust and Marguerite is offset by the prancing of a delightfully insouciant Méphistophélès.

Chaliapin as Mefistofele
Boito's Mefistofele is another demon-inspired work which is not exactly great but is a lot of fun. Boito was better known as a librettist (he wrote two of the greatest: Verdi's Otello and Falstaff) but his version of this well-worn deal-with-the-devil story has some great chorus work, tuneful arias for a tenor and two sopranos, and a real star-turn for a charismatic bass. This is one a handful of operas (along with Boris Godunov and Attila) where the bass is the king.

I've long admired this work but never heard it live so tonight was a first for me as well. And what did I think? Well first of all count me in as a real fan of this work. It makes way more impact live, where the incredible chorus (especially in the Prologue and Epilogue) do have this levitating effect on the soul. And Boito's music is not always at the same level of inspiration but is always compulsively tuneful and listenable. This opera is like devil's food cake. A bunch of waist-line enlarging calories.

The Met revived its long-dormant production of Mefistofele for Christian van Horn, a very buzzy, talked-about bass-baritone. He won the Richard Tucker award this year. van Horn had big shoes to fill as this work has long been associated with legendary bassos of the past. It served as the debut for Fedor Chaliapin. Here is a review:
Chaliapin, who appeared for the first time in America last night in the Metropolitan Opera House, won a triumph. Indeed, the greeting given to the Russian basso not only by the musical masses, but by critically experienced listeners, surpassed anything New Yorkers had experienced since they were introduced to the art of Caruso. .... The Russian singer accomplished wonders. One was reminded of Caruso nights, so boisterous were the demonstrations of approval in the standing room down stairs and the spaces near the dome .... So loud at times were the calls for repetitions that it seemed megaphones must have been employed.

van Horn in the "balloon" aria, photo @ Karen Almond
How did van Horn do? van Horn has a handsome, decent-sized if not overpowering voice. It sounds healthy and well-produced. What he is not is a real bass. He doesn't have the low notes for the role. The voice is resonant and ringing for most of the music but sounds hollow and inaudible whenever he has to go low. "Ave signor" and the Whistling Aria were just two points where van Horn's lack of resonant low notes lessened the impact of his portrayal.

As for his acting, he has a good stage presence and did all the business of the Robert Carsen production well, including crawling up and down those ladders and the balloon popping (don't ask, just go with it). He also looks good shirtless for those who are keeping track of these things. He just lacks the last bit of charismatic humor and sarcasm that can turn the Devil from "fun" to "sexy and fun." But that will probably come with time and experience.

Let's compare these two versions, van Horn's and Nazzareno de Angels. You can hear how much better this music sounds with a rich deep bass. de Angelis has that genuine basso cantante sound that is caressing and terrifying at the same time. (By the way the old Columbia recording of Mefistofele with de Angelis in the title role is one of the best operatic recordings, period.)

His colleague Michael Fabiano (Faust) gave maybe the best performance I've ever heard him give. Fabiano is an unpredictable singer. You know how most singers need to warm up? I feel like Fabiano needs to cool down to settle into a performance. He always comes out guns a blazing, already cranked up from zero to 60 before he sings a note. And the sound that comes out is exciting, full of squillo, but can also sound raw, hoarse, and without subtlety. So it was tonight -- his opening act was a torrent of sound. "Dai campi" was ... loud. The quartet in the garden with Margherita had him trying and failing to find some right pitches. But by Margherita's death scene his voice had cooled down and "Lontano, lontano" was beautifully calibrated.

Fabiano and Meade, photo @ Karen Almond
Where he really shone was the last act and epilogue. It's a long sing from that treacherously high duet with Elena to the aria "Giunto sul passo estremo" to the final ascent to the heavens, where the tessitura goes higher and higher. Fabiano's stamina was a his greatest strength -- his voice just got stronger and stronger and by the time the curtain came down his face was awash with a look of triumph. As always his diction is excellent, and his intensity onstage is compelling. Tonight was a night where his voice just fell into all the right places.

Angela Meade (Margherita) is an odd fit for this role. Her casting makes more sense when you remember that originally van Horn/Fabiano/Meade were slated for I Lombardi. Meade is a dramatic coloratura and this role is lyric with a need for pathos and expressiveness. Meade's voice is big, strong, with a hard edge and a overpowering vibrato. It's impressive. It fills the house. But pathos is not in her artist toolbox. (Which is okay -- many great singers are not able to color their voice to suggest sadness. Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Victoria de los Angeles yes. Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, Anna Netrebko -- not so much.) "La altra notte" and "Lontano, lontano" were both imposing rather than moving. Meade is also strangely without a good trill (a real demerit in "La altra notte") and has a distressing tendency to fly off pitch. She did make more of an attempt to act than I've seen from her in the past.

Fabiano and Check, photo @ Karen Almond
Jennifer Check in the brief but glorious role of Elena (she has the best music other than the chorus) was a disappointment. I've seen Check before numerous times in smaller comprimario roles. She's lost a lot of weight and looks great, but her voice is now wobbly, shrill and with a hollow-sounding core. The gorgeous duet "Forma ideal" was defeated by Check's inability to soar into the stratosphere.

I know this is getting repetitive but the Met chorus is amazing. The real stars of the show, and they deserved their own curtain call. Carlo Rizzi was more efficient than anything in the pit -- this is a long opera and he conducted it in record speed. We got out before the actual projected time. What he doesn't do is luxuriate in the magnificent choruses that Boito wrote.

Carsen's production, photo @ Karen Almond
Robert Carsen's production is still wonderful and makes the best possible case for this opera. The magnificent unit set of a theater by Michael Levine is clever -- it suggests that the Devil is above all an awesome performer. This is reinforced by having the Mefistofele carry a violin and at times seemingly "conduct" the opera. Carsen consistently works around the static spots and longueurs of Boito's inconsistent, episodic libretto. For instance the Easter celebrations of Frankfurt happen to be a dead spot in the opera. Carsen decides to have a decadent Venetian carnival with an Adam and Eve show that turns into a double strip-tease. The angels that start and end the opera look sinister, with creepy face masks and crowns. Who would want to hang out in heaven? As Mark Twain said, "Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company."

So this performance was far from perfect, but I didn't regret a minute of it. And when the opera was over and I was walking out a dollar bill miraculously materialized in front of me. Either God or the devil must love me.


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