From the ridiculous to the (more nearly) sublime, we spent parts of the last couple of evenings watching a video-tape of the San Francisco Opera’s production of “Mephistofle,” by Arrigo Boito. The video is produced by Kultur (www.kultur.com), who has a deadly dangerous catalog of Opera and live theatre performances. Their blurb on the video sums it up: “Samuel Ramey has won overwhelming critical acclaim for his performance in the title role of this San Francisco Opera production of Boito's operatic masterpiece based on Goethe's "Faust". Robert Carsen's sumptuous post-modern production is a gloriously decadent and theatrically stunning realization, and the San Francisco Opera's performance has been unanimously acclaimed in both Paris and San Francisco. Also featuring Gabriela Benackova and Dennis O'Neill, conducted by Maurizio Arena.”
Boito’s adaptation of the Faust myth is daring in a number of ways, chiefly in that he makes the tempter Mephistopheles, whom many critics acknowledge is the most interesting character in the story, the main character. Boito does so by opening the opera with the devil literally climbing out of the “pit” (in this case, the orchestra pit) to visit Heaven, where (borrowing from the story of Job) he makes a wager with God that he can corrupt and claim the soul of Faust. The story plays out in the classical fashion as Mephistopheles temps Faust with youth and power, leads him to seduce and abandon the innocent Marguerite, to be seduced and abandoned by Helen of Troy, to try and fail to rescue Marguerite, and finally for Heaven’s grace to reach out and pluck Faust from the devil’s grasp at the last moment. Mephistopheles’ defeat is wonderfully ironic, since he gives Faust the key to escape: he taunts Faust, telling him that hi unhappiness is due to his failure to say to any moment in his life, “Stay, for thou art beautiful.” Instead, Faust has always wanted more, pursued the next illusion. When Faust is granted a vision of heaven, he cries out the words the devil has given him, acknowledging the eternal beauty of Heaven, and is saved thereby.
Boito’s opera is less frequently performed than the more familiar “Faust” by Charles Gounod, partly because of its subversive take on the subject matter, but, as we saw, it can be hugely expensive to mount. San Francisco’s 1997 production pulled out all the stops, including using a huge chorus and cast of supernumeraries, who appear in each scene except the prison scene, and must be costumed as angels, carnival revelers, or ancient Greeks, depending upon the act (plus, a corps de ballet for the Greek scene). Samuel Ramey was indeed great in the title role, using a very expressive face and body as well as beautiful bass voice to get across the wit and humour of the character. Gabriela Benackova has a big voice and sang wonderfully in the dual role of Marguerite and Helen, and both were ably supported vocally by Dennis O’Neill in the role of Faust. This video is well worth tracking down and seeing if you care for opera at all. Your public library system may have it (ours did).