Carlo Rizzi, the only Italian in this largely grain-fed North American production, vigorously led the spectacular opera orchestra to highlight the dark and moving score of Arrigo Boito, a hugely underrated composer who is today principally known as Giuseppe Verdi’s most successful librettist. Already the overture, underpinned by the foreboding basses and cellos, sets the stage for the dark atmosphere that unfolds over the next three hours.
The set remains as effectively kitschy as it was when first seen in 2000. Its big idea is the placing of the action in a theatre within a theatre, with the chorus and many protagonists doubling as audience members taking in the plot. The lush co-production with the San Francisco Opera, replete with Fantasia-like sets (Michael Levine), over the top costumes and masks, lavishly detailed and often unclothed (flesh suits, not really naked: it’s the Met, quand même) side characters show Robert Carsen at his most unbridled. This Mefistofele is also indelibly remembered for Samuel Ramey’s standout performance with Dennis O’Neill and Gabriela Benackova (on double-duty as both Margherita and Elena), all at their absolute peak. This is a tough standard to beat.
Christian van Horn delivered an effective and disturbingly likeable Mefistofele. His phrasing is excellent, he whistles naturally (a special feature of this opera), he moves gracefully, and he possesses ample vocal resources. A good, reliable Mefistofele. Faust, the object of the devil’s efforts, was reliably portrayed by Michael Fabiano. The talented tenor had plenty opportunity to wow the audience with his Italianate and mellifluously warm voice, though it probably wasn’t his best night, with some of the high notes emerging pressed. Angela Meade took on the challenging but unfortunately short part of Margherita. While Meade makes a somewhat unexpected physical counterpoint to Fabiano’s lithe Faust, her singing was nothing short of astounding. Possessing an enormous voice which maintains all the agility of a belcantista, with surprisingly delivered trills and disciplined diminuendos, she was utterly enchanting. Jennifer Check as Elena (Helen of Troy) was vocally clear and precise but remained somewhat colourless even when she emerged from the scrim.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus (Donald Palumbo) rose effortlessly to the enormous challenges of the opera’s numerous choral passages. These alone would have merited the drive from New Jersey, or even a flight from overseas. The dimension, but also the skill level of this chorus, is way beyond the reach of most other opera companies.
The grateful audience clapped eagerly in-between scenes and gave a happy yet short-lived standing ovation for a performance that didn’t really merit it by the Met standards. But probably did by the standards of any other house.
Performance attended: November 12, 2018
Mefistofele: “Ecco il mondo”