Arrigo BOITO: Mefistofele, Blu-ray (2016)

If you can ignore the tedious staging, the singing is good.

Arrigo BOITO: Mefistofele, Blu-ray (2016)

Cast: René Pape, Joseph Calleja,  Kristine Opolais, Karine Babajanyan. 
Music: Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Conductor: Omer Meir Wellber
Director: Roland Schwab
Studio: Unitel. Blue-ray. [l1/18/16]
Run Time: 140 minutes
Video: 1.77:1  Color. 
Audio: Dolby, NTSC, Stereo
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
Extras: None
Rating: ***½

Half a century ago in high school, I took my first girlfriend to my first opera recital. We heard the Chinese bass-baritone Yi-Kwei Sze (1915-1994) sing. From Mefistofele he performed the lively and bizarre aria  “Son spirito che nega.” (“This is the spirit of denial.”)  I had never heard whistling in an aria before, and was so impressed I vowed to see the entire opera soon. Alas, it was not to be for a very long time. This is mostly because Mefistofele is so overshadowed by Gounod’s Faust (which cherry-picks Goethe’s Faust) that it is nowhere near the repertoire. Still, I had great hopes for this recording.

Alas, they were (mostly) unfounded. Arrigo Boito is best known for the libretti of Otello and Falstaff, which he wrote for Verdi. His only opera Mefistofele took him fifteen years. For the nineteenth century it’s okay, not top drawer, but the music is curiously uneven. For example, the composer begins to develop an idea, like the one in Act 4, which features Faust falling in love with Helen (“Elena”) of Troy. Then it goes nowhere. This may have been a good idea on stage, both for Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

However — musically, where can you take it? Even in capable hands, the act is, well, challenging for any director. Yet throttled by an “experimental” one like Roland Schwab, the scene quickly devolves. In his rendition, Troy is supposed to be burning in the background, but this conflagration is visually ignored (no flames like those in the “Witches Sabbath” sequence), and described only when Heike Grötzinger as Elena excitedly sings “Notte cupa, truce, senza fine funèbre” (“Night, darkness, endless mourning”). The love between Faust and Helen has no dramatic or musical tension, nor does it develop or change the direction of the opera any. (Faust repents no matter what.) Here Elena, scarcely an object of eroticism, is primly dressed like a lay nurse in a Catholic drug recovery ward.

Perhaps one scene that contains a shard of poignancy occurs in Act 3, set in a prison cell with Kristine Opolais’ highly-depressed Margherita confessing her dual crimes of infanticide and matricide. She’s pretty messed up, mistaking Mefistofele with the hangman and asking Faust why he won’t kiss her. (Would you?)

There are many sequences that plunge viewers deep into Eurotrash territory, like Mefistofele and Faust saddled on Harleys at the end of Act 1. The “Witches Sabbath” in Act 2 is well sung, both by the principals and the chorus, but so terribly staged. I expected something remotely scary at least, even borderline thrilling, but frankly, Disney’s Fantasia (1940) does a better job (and to the music of Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky!). The famous scene in which Mefistofele holds a globe and sings the intense aria “Ecce il mondo” is misplaced on a stage of writhing bodies and a mass of offal signifying the earth. Flashing lights and flames soon envelope the chorus. Too little and too late. Each act is like a disjointed tableau, not even loosely connected to the others. (In contrast, Tales of Hoffman is made up of individual “tales,” but they are at least thematically related – Hoffman’s bad luck with the ladies.)

Here’s an annoyance that may drive you nuts: There is no DVD menu, nor even a printed listing showing which track contains what. Good luck finding your favorite aria to show off to your Boito fans.

If you can ignore the tedious staging, the singing is good, not first-rate but acceptable. Bass René Pape’s Mefistofele is expressive and believably threatening, as I would expect. Joseph Calleja’s Faust is deftly portrayed as naive and foolish in equal measure, and the chorus is spot on with their timing and delivery in every scene they’re in. Alas, if this 2½ hour performance were on my phone’s music player, I could drive from Tampa to Daytona Beach listening to it without ever getting bored. If I find a way to rip it, I’ll let you know.

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