Sept. 09--"Mefistofele," Arrigo Boito's ambitious but maladroit operatic treatment of the Faust story, needs two things to make it tolerable: a dynamic, charismatic bass to embody the title role, and an artistic team willing to give the piece's weaknesses a big, gleeful raspberry.
The presence of both is what made Robert Carsen's riotous production a hit at its first San Francisco Opera outing in 1989, and again when it was revived five years later. But on Friday night in the War Memorial Opera House, "Mefistofele" -- blandly sung and treated with wholly unwarranted respect -- got the company's new season off to a largely dreary start.
Dreary, and also long. Between the scene breaks that emphasized the piece's blocky dramaturgy and music director Nicola Luisotti's tendency to linger fondly over every phrase and transition, the evening dragged slowly toward the witching hour. I'm not actually sure when this performance would have been more welcome, but as the vehicle for an Opening Gala it was a peculiar choice.
And "Mefistofele" (which the Opera, for no obvious reason, is billing under its English title as "Mephistopheles") is a tough sell under the best of circumstances. There are a few inventive stretches of music and an occasional dark irony in the libretto, but more often Boito's muse points him in a promising direction and then abandons him. For every glorious inspiration -- including Margherita's death scene and some of the choral writing -- there are pages and pages of anxious note-spinning.
When Carsen's production was new, it starred the great Samuel Ramey as the Devil, with his resplendent voice and an air of sexual menace to pull the audience along, and the staging was buoyed by a commitment to kitschy excess.
The physical relics of that commitment are all still in place, making the performance at least a feast for the eyes. The Prologue, set in Heaven, situates the action in God's private opera house, which is a nice touch of theatrical heresy.
The extravagant colors and religious pageantry of the Easter Parade remain intact, as does the orgy of naked writhing that shapes the Walpurgis Night scene. Some aspects of Michael Levine's stage design, such as the ginormous telescope in Faust's study and the tilted platform that serves as the garden where he seduces Margherita, still give evidence of a winningly cartoonish approach.
Spotlight on soprano
But director Laurie Feldman, who returned to stage this revival, seems to have taken everything quite seriously, moving the performers around with stodgy deliberateness. Raucous energy -- the kind that could have made the project feel like a shared adventure -- was in short supply.
Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov made a game stab at the title role, but his singing lacked the power and intensity to illuminate the part -- especially in the lower register, where he often faded into inaudibility. As Faust, tenor Ramon Vargas struggled through much of the evening -- his high notes pinched, his phrasing labored -- only to emerge at the end of the night with a superbly florid and eloquent account of his dying aria.
The true star of the performance, unsurprisingly, was soprano Patricia Racette, whose Margherita shifted effortlessly from girlish naivete to haunted remorse on her deathbed, with both scenes shaped by precise and pointed phrasing. And for the tacked-on fourth act, in which Faust travels back to the ancient world to make time with Helen of Troy, Racette imbued that role with both nobility and vocal grandeur. (The gifted Adler fellow Marina Harris will take over the part during the last three performances, freeing Racette to concentrate on the world premiere of "Dolores Claiborne.")
The Adler Fellows were ably represented by tenor Chuanyue Wang (a sweet-toned Wagner) and mezzo-sopranos Erin Johnson (Marta) and Renee Rapier (Pantalis). Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus, tasked with a broad and diverse range of assignments -- from an angelic choir to nude debauchees -- rose to all of them with aplomb.
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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