Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Mefistofele
Van Horn, Fabiano, Meade Display Moments Of Individual Brilliance, But Something’s MissingBy David Salazar
Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” is a work of glorious moments that has yet to find a stable place in the standard repertoire. Despite being derived from Goethe’s famed “Faust,” great arias for the major leads, and an amazing part for any opera house’s chorus, it has never been as popular as other adaptations of the same source material(ie: Gounod’s “Faust”).
In fact, the Metropolitan Opera had not mounted its current production of the opera since 2000, making the performance on Nov. 8, 2018, a rather rare occasion. So it was undeniably with great interest that I went to the Met to see the revival of this rare gem.
On the whole, the evening was a rather interesting one in the sense that many aspects of it were quite excellent and yet there loomed a sense that something was missing in the middle of it all.
In many ways, this all came down to one man – maestro Carlo Rizzi.
Polished But Rushed
Let’s make something clear – under Rizzi’s baton, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra sounded pristine. Every texture, every sound, every dynamic marking was fit in its place like a master craftsman at work. The aural balance in the ensemble, from the effervescent violins at the start of the second act to the woodwind squeals throughout Mefistofele’s opening moments in the prologue, to the climax of the Walpurgis Night, was precise as could be. I doubt I have heard the Met Orchestra sound this polished all season.
And yet, it didn’t always add up to its full dramatic or emotional potential for one major reason – Rizzi seemed to be in a rush all night long.
“Mefistofele” can be quite the lengthy opera and the constant pauses between scene changes in the production (more on that later) seemed like a reason to want to move along with the proceedings; but it just seemed like Rizzi was trying to fulfill some mandate of finishing by 11 p.m. EST, as noted in the program.
The opening prelude with its alternation between potency and calm didn’t really build or grow to any particular climax, making the music feel repetitive. Loud moments were always the same level of loud and soft were always at the same volume.
The same could be said for the choral sections that closed the prologue. Boito built one ensemble on top of another, the music repeating and growing until we get an apotheosis in the reprisal of “Ave Signor.” But the music rushed by so quickly that by the time the climax came about it felt more like it just appeared instead of being an arrival point on a musical journey. Boito wrote sempre crescendo throughout the final few pages of the prologue until a massive triple forte explosion on “E s’erge a Te.” But that sempre crescendo was never felt even if the climax did appear and was powerfully sustained to the final notes. When this particular section returned at the end of the opera, the effect was very much the same, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction with the sublime ending of the opera.
The sense of a rushed tempo was felt throughout and affected the soloists mightily. The tempo shifts in “Sono lo spirit che nega” all feature rallentando and yet it felt like Christian Van Horn had no space to shape those phrases before having to jump into the Allegro Sostenuto or Più mosso con fuoco sections.
The tempi were so fast during the opening Walpurgis night choral sections that the articulation with the chorus members wasn’t quite clean in the pattering (though to be fair, the faster tempi in this section added great excitement overall). The Act two quartet lacked cohesion between the soloists and the orchestra. The ensemble to close the fourth Act was imprecise with the propulsive tempi seemingly outpacing some of the soloists. “Lontano lontano,” with its reflective and intimate mood, is the kind of moment where you can give your soloists a sense of expansion; the duet never quite hit its stride emotionally because it felt more like the mission was to get through it.
The one most affected by this lack of musical breathing room was tenor Michael Fabiano, a passionate artist that gives it his all. “Dai campi, Dai Prati,” marked Larghetto in the score, builds to a climactic B flat for the tenor. While Fabiano’s sound projected quite well throughout the aria and his legato was solid, he didn’t seem to have the time to shape the aria to grow to its climax.
One might say that this section is rather brief and that not every aria needs to feel expansive, but the same happened with the tenor in the more famous “Giunto sul passo estremo.” Here Faust reflects on his dream, but Rizzi seemed to be pushing Fabiano throughout; Boito’s score allows opportunities for rallentando on higher notes and at the end of certain phrases, but it just never happened. Despite that, the tenor sang passionately throughout the aria and did get to observe the fermata at its close. Other passages that saw a similar effect included “Se tu mi doni un’ora di riposo” in Act one and “Ascolta, vezzoso angelo mio.” You could sense Fabiano feeling somewhat restrained in these moments, muting his potent artistry.
Of course, Boito is not Puccini and in a sense, he is undeniably closer to Verdi in style. But there is no doubt that even the works of Verdi, despite their constant forward drive, afford singers ample space to build lines; Boito affords those opportunities as well, but they didn’t seem to be taken on this night.
And it must be said that faster tempi undeniably made certain sections far better (the Walpurgis Nights and celebrations in Act one), but when everything felt like it was in a rush to move forward, you sensed that some pages of music were being glanced at but never really explored as much as others. This created a sense of imbalance in the score and its dramatic execution.
Perhaps Rizzi prefers faster tempi. Or maybe he was tasked with finishing by a certain hour (union rules). And you honestly can’t fault him when he has to contend with the production.
Lots to Think About
To be clear, Robert Carsen’s interpretation of the work is quite fascinating and engaging visually and intellectually.
The curtain rises and we are presented with another curtain, which also rises to portray a proscenium. Carsen, the master of theater within a theater, uses the same trick here, but it works within the context of the story. The Prologue opens with Mefistofele and the Chorus of Angels making a bargain for Faust’s soul. These supernatural beings, the production postulates, are watching and observing us in the real world and to that effect we see Angels seated in balcony seats onstage throughout the evening. Mefistofele appears from the orchestra pit with a violin, suggesting that he was performing during the opening prelude, breaking the fourth wall. At the close of the Walpurgis Night, he assumes the role of the conductor, his back to the audience as he “directs” the musical and physical proceedings. In other moments he literally pushes the angels out of their seats and assumes the role of spectator.
We see a lot of ladders used throughout to explore the rise and fall of its respective characters. Margherita’s scenes take place on a stage within the stage, emphasizing her imprisoned state from the start of the work; she is no less a prisoner during her romantic moments with Faust than during her death scene.
Helen of Troy is set up as a performer of the theater, her love for Faust nothing more than a setup that will be revealed at the close of the act when Carsen showcases the “audience” onstage; this “audience” is actually facing the real audience in the opera house, suggesting a mirror image of us. Match that with the fact that Faust enters the fourth act from the orchestra seats in the hall and it is clear how Carsen is toying with everyone’s sense of what is and isn’t real.
As the fourth Act curtain falls, Faust is finally left off the “stage” onstage, and his life is ready to end with him realizing that all he hoped for was mere illusion or tragedy. Throw in the incredible imagery of the angels and the production is a true jaw-dropper visually and intellectually.
But it comes with a big caveat – all of this requires constant scene changes throughout, resulting in a pause at the end of every single scene. This is not conducive to a fluid evening at the opera and it might be this that motivated Rizzi’s speedy tempi.
All of the aforementioned withstanding, the three main artists were in solid form vocally and dramatically.
Christian Van Horn, who recently won the Richard Tucker Award, took on the role of Mefistofele in a vocally-elegant display. With a rather sturdy vibrato and potent sound, Van Horn was an imposing vocal presence as the devil himself, his very first utterances of “Ave Signor!” delivered with mocking tone. Throughout the prologue, he emphasized a sardonic tone in his delivery that hinted at aggression in some moments. His confrontation with Faust a few scenes later featured a sense of strength and confidence.
He shaped the opening phrases of “Son lo Spirito che nega” with a strong connected legato that made it feel like a slithering snake spouting its venom. Perhaps some of the lower notes didn’t have the potency of his fuller middle and upper reaches, but it worked in creating the portrait of the devil in all his evil. He found ways to make his repetitions of “No” different and fresh, playing up the comedic aspect of his repeated renunciations.
If the opening aria was a virtuosic display, his interpretation of “Ecco il mondo” was more muted and reflective; Van Horn’s sound was tamer in this solo, inviting the listener into his world. He definitely relished his opportunity to conduct the choral masses at the close of the Walpurgis Night and his imposing figure also made him a dominant physical presence throughout. He did seem a bit stiff physically as the opera progressed, though with a number of performances left, he is likely to settle into the role.
Intensity & Passion
Despite what was mentioned earlier about certain passages in the work, Fabiano was in fine form vocally. There was never a moment where you couldn’t hear him project into the cavernous Met. His older Faust was a bit more muted in terms of his intensity, but his arrival in the second Act saw him sing with unbridled passion. Throughout you got a sense of a man yearning for more, his sound constantly pushing its own limits to exciting effect.
His finest moments definitely came in the final two acts. His cries of “Helena” were filled with rapturous joy and elation that suited the visceral ping in his timbre. But the epilogue is where he shone with a passionate “Giunto sul passo estremo” and especially in riding over the chorus at the very end. The climactic B natural on “Baluardo m’è il Vangelo!” didn’t come off as cleanly as some of his other high notes, but his voice did power through the incredible ensemble building around him.
If there was one moment where Fabiano seemed a bit detached dramatically it came when he saw the images of Margherita reflected to him during the Walpurgis night. Here, Faust starts to observe someone being tortured and eventually realizes that it is the woman he loved and left behind. Fabiano’s delivery here seemed rather remote emotionally, the phrases not quite building in tension toward the realization. It was one blight on an otherwise emotionally engaging interpretation.
Big Stars In Big Moments
As Margherita, Angela Meade displayed some solid middle and lower voice, particularly when she denounces the devil in her death scene. The famed aria “L’altra notte” featured strong legato, though there was a bit of fuzziness of pitch when she ascended into the higher reaches of her voice, particularly on the high A natural on “per farmi delirare.” The first cadenza also lacked precision in the coloratura passages, the notes blending one into another without distinction. She adjusted for the second cadenza, taking more time to build each phrase more clearly leading up to the high B natural; unfortunately, she was unable to sustain that high note smoothly when she started it with pianissimo tone and attempted a crescendo out of it. The reprisal of the main melody in the aria was noticeable for a subtle aggression that Meade added to her interpretation, emphasizing Margherita’s misery.
She was probably at her best at the close of the scene as she begs for mercy and forgiveness from God. Here she threw caution to the winds and delivered the passage with intensity to spare, her ample volume resonating fiercely in the Met.
But the real stars of the show were undoubtedly the members of the chorus who are tasked with a ton of challenging passages throughout the opera. The ensemble, despite some rough patches in some of the speedier sections, seemed to find ways to marvel with their cohesion of sound. The fugal passages that end the Walpurgis Night were probably the big highlight of the evening with a razor-sharp precision and intense energy.
On the whole, there were some fine individual moments from all the major players, but it added up to a work that felt somewhat emotionally and dramatically inert. It should be interesting to see how this production progresses and how the pieces all come together.