D.C. opera's 'Mefistofele' is delightful, almost campy

March 07, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Arrigo Boito's opera, "Mefistofele," rarely gets the respect it deserves. Too often it is merely regarded as a vehicle for a bass with superb dramatic instincts.

The Washington Opera's new production of the opera at the Kennedy Center's Opera House satisfies that requisite -- in a performance that shows the great Samuel Ramey at his best.

But this fine production also reminds one why "Mefistofele" is among the handful of non-Verdian Italian operas written in the second half of the 19th century to survive on the international stage: It is the only operatic setting of Goethe's "Faust" that captures a significant measure of the imaginative sweep of its great original.

That's not to say this production, which Robert Carsen designed for the Grand Theatre de Geneve and the San Francisco Opera, is stuffy. In fact, it is -- delightfully so -- almost campy.

Boito may be best known for this opera and as the librettist for Verdi's final (and greatest) operas, but he was primarily a playwright and poet who raged against the staid conventions of his time. This is a production, therefore, that continually makes itself felt as a production.

The famous prologue in heaven takes place in what is revealed to be an Italian opera house, and every moment after undercuts the suspension of disbelief, reminding the viewer he is in the theater.

Carsen and his scenarist, Michael Levine, have taken some outrageous risks, all of which succeed. The front of the stage is decorated with baroque representations of unclothed angels and cherubs, a veritable paradise of white-as-alabaster buttocks.

And the opera's famous "Walpurgis Nacht" is a stunner. Carsen has made it resemble a scene from one of the Coen brothers' farther than far-out movies.

Instead of the traditional night-on-bald-mountain setting, Mefistofele's witches, male and female, have their annual meeting in what appears to be the ballroom of a Las Vegas hotel. The time seems to be New Year's Eve and the partygoers seem to have attired themselves from a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog. It's nothing less than a not-so-secret garden of garter belts, filled-to-overflowing corsets and loose-fitting negligees.

"Mefistofele" is a hard opera to do well: It can easily become grandiose; coordinating the huge chorus and large orchestra is a difficult task; the title role demands a bass who commands the stage as easily as he commands vocal color; the role of Faust needs a tenor whose voice is not only beautiful but large enough to compete against that of the Mefistofele; and the female roles, Margherita and Elena, are far from easy to sing.

Ramey conquered the part: He sings this role with beauty of tone, flexibility of nuance and vocal and dramatic daring, all of which came together to produce a sense of the character's malevolence and wit, and his shattered grandeur.

William Joyner sang the role of Faust with taste and eloquence.

Nelly Miricoiu, who sang both Margherita and Elena, was able to project the frailty of the one and the classical passion of the other.

John Demain's conducting held the occasionally rambling score together, and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington Opera Chorus acquitted themselves with real distinction.


Who: Washington Opera

When: Through March 19

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington

Tickets: $52-$110

Call: (202) 416-7800

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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