Arrigo Boito - Mefistofele
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015
Omer Meir Wellber, Roland Schwab, René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Heike Grötzinger, Andrea Borghini, Karine Babajanyan, Rachael Wilson, Joshua Owen Mills
Staatsoper.TV - 15 November 2015
There's a problem with Mefistofele, and it's surprising since it is the only complete opera written by Arrigo Boito, the librettist for some of Giuseppe Verdi's greatest works. Boito's librettos for Otello and Falstaff are so filled with poetic insight, depth of characterisation and tense drama that they spurred Verdi on to the late creative peak of his career. While Boito is evidently no match for Verdi as a composer, what is surprising is that it's not the music that is the weak point in Mefistofele, it's the drama. Admirably tackling for the first time a work that nonetheless deserves greater recognition, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich only manage to emphasise those weaknesses in a spectacular but dramatically inert production.
During his introduction, Nickolaus Bachler, the director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, calls Mefistofele "an opera for experts". This means that Boito, choosing to illustrate a number of scenes from 'Faust' in the manner of Berlioz rather than attempt to create a dramatic narrative in the style of Gounod, expects his audience to be familiar with those operatic antecedents, or with Goethe's work itself. Accepting it on those terms, Mefistofele is a powerful work that does have a character of its own, as well as a distinct perspective - the title indicating that the interest lies with Mephistopheles here rather than Faust - that suits Boito's lyrical strengths. That doesn't mean however that it can't be given a greater dramatic presence on the stage.
There are many ways you can interpret the setting here, but essentially, it seems to me that the purpose is to emphasise the hold that Mefistofele wields over the world. Starting with Mefistofele putting a record onto an old gramophone, it's the devil who is calling the tunes here, settling back in his armchair to watch a plane hurtling towards a city tower, with a somewhat random image of John Lennon also projected over this scene. Freezing the moment, the remainder of the opera seems to take place in what looks like the framework fuselage of this plane that is about to crash into the city, held there only as long as it takes Mefistofele to win his bet against the heaven as to the extent of his power and influence over mankind.
Boito's scoring and writing would certainly indicate that this influence is considerable, and that ultimately all the horror and havoc caused by human agency is scarcely negated by a last-minute death-bed redemption. He may not have ultimate control of Faust's eternal soul, but by heck, he causes a great deal of death and horror in the world while he is alive. Isn't that bad enough? Boito's vision is certainly a dark one that explores this nihilistic element, and his musical interpretation of it can often be overblown, how else are you meant to deal with a war on this scale between heaven and hell?
It would be very easy to apply this despairing nihilism to the situation in the world today, but the Munich production squanders the opportunity. Mefistofele still surely reigns in the world today. The fact that this performance took place just two days after the Paris attacks just emphasised how abstract and vacant the production was, totally incapable of making any meaningful connection to the very subject that Boito is writing about. Boito's imagery is strong - "Let us dance! For the world is now lost. On the countless dead shards of the fatal globe, our steps blaze and mingle in a wild dance of Hell" - but all Schwab has to offer are empty theatrical cliché's, S&M costumes, zombie demons, stock dance gestures, operatic overacting and empty spectacle. We even get the obligatory asylum scene at the conclusion.
Detached as it might be from the real world, conceptually, Schwab's production holds together well. Mefistofele's influence - particularly as it is so well-played and sung by René Pape - is shown to hold sway. The bet here is not so much that Mefistofele can corrupt Faust, as reduce him to despair at the realisation of his own nature and the extent of his corruption. Strapped to one of the chairs on the plane, Faust is raised up to see the consequences of his actions and the true nature of man - "Who pushed her into the abyss?" Mefistofele asks Faust of Margherita, "You or I?". The realisation of what he has done inevitably drives Faust mad. The final scene, albeit that it takes place in an asylum, is also simultaneously in the crashed plane, where a forensic team picks through the wreckage for clues.
Boito's Mefistofele has its flaws then, but its philosophy is not one of them. With a strong production willing to delve into the depths it explores and a musical accompaniment that supports it, Mefistofele is capable of being turned into something more meaningful and become more of a fixture in the repertoire. Munich's production feels strangely detached and absent, failing to ignite even the coup de théâtre of the opening scene by having the huge choirs of heaven sound like they were singing from an adjacent building. Perhaps the sound mixing just wasn't the best for the internet streamed production, but there was a similar disengagement throughout between the stage and the pit. The Bayerische Staatsoper's failure to do justice to this work is very disappointing.
So too is the singing. René Pape at least gives an impressive performance that is full of character. Mephisopheles is a role that he is is familiar with in Gounod's Faust, but he is able to take advantage of the more detailed characterisation and prominence that Bioto gives to the role in Mefistofele, and is wonderfully menacing in his singing and delivery. Joseph Calleja is a terrific singer with a great voice that just oozes classic Italianate lyricism, but even though you couldn't fault his singing or his performance here, he just feels wrong casting him as Faust. This is surely more of a role for Jonas Kaufmann, were he not already overworked in Munich and on the world stage. Kristine Opolais is another Munich regular who is miscast in roles that are out of her depth. She's good when called upon to project high emotion, but thin and nearly inaudible in middle range and insecure in pitch at the lower register. Good singers all, but Pape aside, not the kind of performers who are capable of rescuing this dramatically inert production in Munich.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV