In its effort to grasp nothing less than heaven, hell and earth, Boito’s opera is a scattered but intriguing road trip with Satan at the wheel, short on coherence but long on spectacle. The brilliance of Robert Carsen’s iconic 1989 production (revived here under the direction of Laurie Feldman) lies in its ability to milk that sense of spectacle for every drop.
This theatrical radiance reaches a peak almost immediately, with the thunderous crescendo of the heavenly chorus, performed by 120 singers, clothed in white and blue within the interior of a gorgeous 18th-century opera house. Accompanied by the orchestra at full power (and a composer who was not timid with his f’s), the moment was almost an out-of-body experience.
Boito’s devil is much more fun than Gounod’s (largely because Boito has more sympathy for the devil), and Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov catches his michievous style perfectly, climbing a red ladder from the orchestra pit to deliver the famed wry prologue on the nature of devil, god and man. Abdrazakov combines the requisite quaking low notes, a Ramey-like ability to perform bare-chested and an onstage nimbleness to catch the satanic spirit, singing particularly well in the expressive first meeting with Faust, the Spirit of Denial aria (“Son lo spirito che nega sempre”). His conducting of the chorus in the witches’ sabbath is almost as energetic as Nicola Luisotti’s.
I confess to a serious lack of objectivity when it comes to Ramón Vargas’s gorgeous lyric tenor. Playing Faust, he overcomes his cherubic face to deliver the right sense of gravitas, but the most golden passages are still light-hearted: the romantic courtship of Margherita in Act 2. Patricia Racette’s voice has gained power and weight over the years, and although this lean toward the dramatic pairs well with her acting skills, she sometimes carries it too far. Yes, Margherita opens Act 3 in a prison cell, half-crazed after poisoning her mother and allegedly drowning her baby. But she’s also singing one of her loveliest, darkest arias in existence, “L’altra notte,” and her delivery is marred by gasping breaths and overbroad tones. Perhaps ten percent less actress, ten percent more diva? The aria is followed by a superbly tender duet, “Lontano, lontano,” that displays the compressed beauty of both Vargas’s and Racette’s voices.
The role of Elena (Helen of Troy), is normally taken by the soprano who performs Margherita (Boito’s tribute to the eternal feminine), but at Friday’s performance it was handled by SFO Adler Fellow Marina Harris, who did an excellent job of filling in. This was done, in turn, to enable Racette to replace Dolora Zajick in the world premiere production of Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne.”
I don’t think more was ever asked of – or delivered by – an opera chorus than in this production. Ian Robertson’s singers partook of the Easter Sunday parade (featuring stiltwalkers, half-clothed angels, a fornicating Adam and Eve, a rain of streamers), then proceeded to the Witches’ Sabbath, where they delivered the madly racing chorus while flinging about remarkably realistic schlongs and ta-tas.
This brand of fearlessness could also be located in the orchestra, which attacked an athletic score with aplomb. Signalling the opening salvo, in fact, Maestro Luisotti tucked the baton behind his ear exactly like a quarterback about to deliver a pass. Michael Levine’s costumes offered one piece of visual candy after another, particularly the devil’s spring suit, a peach affair straight out of “Hello, Dolly” with candy-red shoes and a pink vest. Levine’s Act 2 set is an artfully tilted turntable with four perfect trees, set into motion by a put-upon devil’s minion turning a large crank. The turntable shows up later as Margherita’s prison cell, the trees reduced to mangled corpses.
Through October 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $23-$385, www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.
Images: Erin Johnson (Marta) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele). The heavenly chorus. Patricia Racette (Margherita) and Ramón Vargas (Faust). Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele) and the witches' chorus. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novels Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. Operaville is FREE for Amazon Kindle downloads, Sept. 24-25.