Composer: Arrigo Boito
Conductor: Joseph Colaneri
Librettist: Arrigo Boito
Director/Producer: Robert Carsen
Christian van Horn: Mefistofele
Michael Fabiano: Faust
Angela Meade: Margherita
As a dedicated music lover, I know I am having a really good time when I do not even think about, let alone miss, live performances even after a relatively long period of time. And that is exactly what happened to me during my extended, but still too short, stay in the fabulous city of Athens during the month of November. That said, I also want to point out that I am not just saying that because I was happily basking in generally warm and sunny weather while a major snowstorm mercilessly slammed a totally unprepared Big Apple.
But all good things have to come to an end, therefore I reluctantly left mild temperatures, ancient world wonders, terrific food and friendly natives behind and landed in Newark last Saturday, on a dark, cold and wet night (And do not get me started on waiting for the NJ Transit train for 40 minutes). I had a powerful incentive though, as three days later I had scheduled a hot date in the cold city with no less than the devil himself – AKA Mefistofele – at the Met courtesy of Arrigo Boito, Robert Carsen, Christian van Horn, Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade.
When I originally bought my ticket months ago, I probably figured that it would help me get over the jet lag and get back into my routine. On Tuesday, however, after a mere couple of hours of sleep the previous night, it did not seem like such a good idea after all, but it was too late to change plans. So I went ahead and kept my fingers crossed that my foggy state of mind would not prevent me from fully enjoying a hopefully decadent evening.
The legend of Faust has been around for a very long time, most famously through the works of English playwright Marlowe, German novelist Goethe, and French composer Gounod. But Italian poet, journalist, novelist, librettist and composer Arrigo Boito, who was better known for the flawless librettos he wrote for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, resolved to focus on the most colorful character of the story for a change. In the end, his Mefistofele never became part of the standard repertoire, and Boito never composed another opera, but then again, curiosity had me decide to check it out hoping for the best and bracing myself for the worst.
When it comes to juicy roles for basses or bass-baritones, of which there are not that many to begin with, Mefistofele is hard to beat. And local bass-baritone Christian van Horn certainly looked and sounded the part, and having a ball while doing it too. Physically and vocally ready, willing and able, he was a mightily entertaining devil as he was regally prancing around and singing his heart out in eye-popping red outfits or shirtless. His voice had the raw power and smooth elegance required for the job, and his natural charisma made him a naturally commanding Mefistofele.
His choice victim was the hapless and insatiable professor Faust, who was more than capably impersonated by new Met favorite, tenor Michael Fabiano. Too weak to resist the devil’s tempting offer and then living the rest of his life to pay its inevitable price, the dashing singer managed to keep his trademark intensity in check when needed while still efficiently lashing out in the most dramatic moments.
Another Met favorite on that stage was soprano Angela Meade whose appealing voice, demure disposition and virginal outfit helped create a downright poignant Margherita, not the least because she got the best aria of the evening in “L’altra notte in fondo al mane”. That did not keep her from having assertive outbursts though, in particular when she begs for mercy and forgiveness from God.
The unflappable Met chorus kept extremely busy during Acts I and III, and that was all the better for the rest of us. They have demonstrated many times over that they can handle any score thrown at them, and Mefistofele was no exception. The chorus parts were monumental and complex, but the singers handled them all brilliantly, going from the angelic “Salve Regina” to the devilish “Walpurgis Night” without missing a beat.
As for visuals, bringing back Robert Carsen’s 2000 often jaw-dropping theater-within-the-theater production turned out to be a wise move indeed. From the opening scene, in which the chorus’ heavenly singing and the celestial blue sky are suddenly disturbed by a bright red-clad Mefistofele climbing onto the stage from the orchestra pit, the tone is solidly set for contrast, extravagance, inventiveness, and more than a little campiness. The opera may be uneven, both static and all over the place, but the mise en scène largely made up for it, even if we had to put up with countless pauses and two lengthy intermissions.
Arrigo Boito made a name for himself as a librettist, but his composing skills are on obvious display in the winningly lyrical score. Featuring attractive melodies, introspective moments, intense climaxes and inspired arias, it serves the story and its characters well. The Met orchestra, which may not be as familiar with it as they are with the unescapable warhorses, took to it readily and delivered a confident, warm and articulate performance of it.
Although the evening had been long to my exhausted mind and body, and the 66th Street subway stop turned out to be closed to uptown trains when I finally reached it (Aargh!), Mefistofele proved to be an exciting date, not the least because it even included a nice little excursion to… Greece, of all places! A small touch that went a long way.
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