San Francisco Opera Review: MEFISTOFELE (San Francisco Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on September 7, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


I surmise that opinions will be all over the map for San Francisco Opera’s production of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito’s 1868 take on the Faust legend. To begin with, this is a clunky, fragmented and uneven opera. There are a few memorable tunes, especially for the chorus, and there are some juicy parts. And while the libretto is flat and could use more humor, it does effectively portray the struggle between good and evil. What this opera needs to succeed is urgent and rambunctious staging and perfect singing across the board.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of San Francisco Opera’s “Mefistofele” at War Memorial Opera HouseWhat we get is big with a capitol “B,” and ardent opera fans will be enthralled with the sheer size of this production, forgiving–or overlooking–its trespasses. The lavish design elements are a marvel. But this soulless production is overall a soporific combination of opulence and stagnation. Director Laurie Feldman, who is reviving Robert Carsen’s outlandish 1989 rendition, has given this opera a seriousness that makes it feel somber. As such, the prologue, which is set in Heaven, feels like an overly long church mass that makes you want to curl up in a ball and go to sleep in the aisles. But then Act I starts and things begin to wake up. It’s Easter Sunday. Jai Alltizer’s costumes, which are anachronistically designed in the style of a New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, are an eye-popping explosion of riotous color and design; confetti and streamers are flung about the stage; and members of the corps de ballet are writhing and humping. Suddenly, we get a feel of what this opera needs to soar–animated, unadulterated fun. Alas, while there are many whimsical elements, I could not locate the beating heart in this production.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of San Francisco Opera’s “Mefistofele” at War Memorial Opera HouseAnother reason for the lack of excitement is that the soloists, who should be as animated and powerful as the design elements, produce mixed results. Russian Bass-Baritone Ildar Abrazakov, strutting around with his big chest exposed, has a powerful presence as Mefistofele, but he proved to be more baritone than bass: Sadly, he struggled at times with his lower register. As Faust, tenor Ramón Vargas was wispy and light, as if he were singing parlor songs; fortunately, he finally showed us what he was capable of in an articulate and expressive version of Giunto sul passo estremo, but his strength did not arrive until nearly three hours into the opera, and that is too late to get me started. By then, I was already depleted, baffled and enervated.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of San Francisco Opera’s “Mefistofele” at War Memorial Opera HouseThe Opera Chorus sounded amazing in the prologue. With 90 members and 30 children choristers under the direction of Ian Robertson, how could they not? But the best thing in the show, aside from the jaw-dropping prosthetic penises in the Walpurgis Night orgy scene, was soprano Patricia Racette, who not only offered fluid phrasing and silvery top notes, but acted the role of Margherita beautifully, moving from a youthful gullibility in “The Garden” to melancholic sorrow in “The Death of Margherita.” Later in Act IV, Racette gives the role of Helen of Troy a sumptuous graciousness, but that fourth act in which Faust ends up in the ancient world is completely unnecessary, inexplicable and overstuffed. And it seems odd that one actress played both roles (I tried to figure out some hidden meaning in that). Coincidentally, Marina Harris will take over as Helen later on so that Racette can focus on the upcoming Dolores Claiborne.

Michael Levine’s fanciful designs are glorious and offer a hint of why previous productions of this opera were so immensely popular. “The Garden” was set on a tilted tree-lined turntable with apples (wink, wink) strewn about, and that gargantuan telescope in Faust’s den was a wonder to behold, and gave those prosthetic penises a run for their money. But awesome design elements can only do so much to hold our attention. Even though it was hot as–you guessed it–hell in the War Memorial Opera House, that was no reason why patrons departed by the rowful after Act I and again after Act III. Perhaps Mefistofele was chosen to open SF Opera’s season because financial supporters of opera look for this sort of thing, but I assert that non-opera fans will want this sleep-inducing enterprise to go to the devil.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Francisco review of San Francisco Opera’s “Mefistofele” at War Memorial Opera House

photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
scheduled to end on October 2, 2013
for tickets, call 415.864.3330 visit

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