I took the screaming children special flight to San Francisco and then took a room in the Mystic Hotel. This room was next to a staircase that took one from Bush Street (high) to Stockton Street (low). It seemed to serve as San Francisco’s murder alley during the night. There were fist fights and furious invectives flying by my open window. This is all too garish and baroque for further recitation. We moved to a safer room the next morning. In short, don’t book a room at the Mystic Hotel that faces Post. So after a flight from Hell and a night in Hell I was ready for a date with the devil .
October 8 was the last performance in the San Francisco Opera’s current run of Boito’s Mefistofele. Robert Carsen’s 1989 production is ready for the landfill. It’s cheap, tawdry, and vulgar. Even worse is it’s failure to understand the character of the opera. It’s a serious work that Carsen treats frivolously. The Easter Sunday scene resembles Halloween at the Rotary Club with the circus larded on top. I will ignore the indignities heaped on the chorus. Adam and Eve are carried in on a tray and eat the apple from the tree of knowledge and instead of being conscious of nudity tear off their clothes and begin to hump. You get the idea – Eurotrash on the west coast.
One of the cardinal rules of opera that our enlightened age of nincompoop directors has discarded is don’t sing topless, especially if you’re a man. Ildar Abdrazakov was without a shirt about half the time he was on stage. While he’s reasonably buff, for an opera singer, he’s not Mr Universe. Better he should have kept his shirt on. Mefistofele is one the the great bass roles. He should dominate the action, control the opera, be a force of nature or even more. He is the great No! Abdrazakov at this point in his career can do no better than be adequate. The silliness of the production was too much for him to overcome. He has a pleasant lyric bass that often was drowned by the orchestra and chorus. At the end of the epilogue when Mefistofele is defeated he was inaudible. He will have to markedly up his game to do justice to this role.
Ramon Vargas has in recent years developed into a solid lyric tenor; he started as a tenorino. But last night he was barely audible. He was so vocally under powered that you could not readily distinguish him from Chuanyue Wang’s comprimario tenor; he sang Wagner. All the notes were there; but the volume was turned way down. Too bad, because Faust is a fine role for a lyric tenor. Vargas these days does not look the dashing romantic hero. When Mefistofele sent him skyward he was hoisted by a thick rope; he looked like a struggling overfed capon.
The only first rate singing by a principal was that of Patricia Racette as both Margherita and Elena (Helen of Troy in the 4th act). The American soprano was in glorious form. “Spunta l’aura pallida” and indeed the whole prison scene was pure vocal and dramatic artistry even if it was set outdoors in a snow storm. This scene and much of the rest of the opera show how Boito anticipated verismo opera.
The orchestra and chorus in Mefistofele are as important as any of the singers. Here everything was virtually perfect. Nicola Luisotti had the orchestra under wonderful control. His reading of the score revealed its every strength and nuance. His players roared like a lion and sang like a nightingale. A dazzling orchestral performance. Equally dazzling was the chorus. Chorus director Ian Robertson had his charges in complete control.The choral singing in both the prologue and epilogue were as good as can be found in an opera house.
Racette, the orchestra, and the chorus were the reasons to attend this show. The best seat from which to listen to them would have been behind a post. Unfortunately, the War Memorial Auditorium doesn’t have any.
MEFISTOFELE ILDAR ABDRAZAKOV
MARGHERITA PATRICIA RACETTE
FAUST RAMÓN VARGAS
ELENA PATRICIA RACETTE
MARTA ERIN JOHNSON
PANTALIS RENÉE RAPIER
WAGNER NEREO CHUANYUE WANG
CONDUCTOR NICOLA LUISOTTI
PRODUCTION ROBERT CARSEN
REVIVAL DIRECTOR LAURIE FELDMAN
DESIGNER MICHAEL LEVINE
LIGHTING DESIGNER GARY MARDER *
CHORUS DIRECTOR IAN ROBERTSON
CHOREOGRAPHER ALPHONSE POULIN