Once again, La Maratonista and I attended the opening of the San Francisco Opera* season. Even though I can’t afford to attend the gala and dress to the nines, I enjoy seeing those that do and appreciate that our subscription series includes opening night tickets. This year, the featured production was Mefistofele (1868) by Arrigo Boito (1842-1918).
Mefistofele is the classic tale of Faust and his devil’s bargain and Boito’s only complete opera; he is better known as the librettist for Giuseppe Verdi, whose bicentennial the San Francisco Opera is honoring throughout the 2013-2014 season with productions of Falstaff and La traviata as well as special performances of his Messa da Requiem. This production of Mefistofele is a revival of that of Robert Carsen, originally created as his SFO debut in 1989, and stars Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele, tenor Ramón Vargas as Faust, and soprano Patricia Racette as Margherita/Elena (who we last saw in Tosca and will see again later this month in Dolores Claiborne).
Racette was in fine form, shining in Act III when Marguerita is imprisoned and later in a lovely duet with Renée Rapir as Pantalis. The performances of the two male leads were shakier—most of the time I found Abdrazakov convincing as the devil, but was disappointed with Vargas as Faust (although I did enjoy his final numbers with Abdrazakov). Among the minor roles, Chuanyue Wang as Wagner stood out for me.
I had listened to the opera a few times during the week, but I hadn’t really paid attention to the libretto, which was a shame, as it was rather confusing and this was one time where it really would have paid to read up on the story beforehand. Much like San Francisco Ballet’s production of Cinderella earlier this year, there were far too many scenes (eight in total, spread among a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue) that made for a disjointed narrative and an inordinate number of pauses and scene changes during the evening. [Why Act IV, when Mefistofele and Faust are transported to Ancient Greece and visit Helen of Troy, is even here is beyond me. It makes no sense.]
As with Cinderella, it seems no expense was spared in this extravagant production, which often seemed Felliniesque in its presentation. At times there were over 130 people on stage, often cavorting in a riot of color or undress, first as heavenly angels, then as a carnival crowd, and finally as revelers at a Witches’ Sabbath. The chorus was extraordinary and impressive throughout.
Yet, as was the case last year, the real spectacle was offstage in the evening-long fashion parade of many of the audience members. Appropriate for an opera focusing on the devil, red was the color of the night, although I was quite happy to see many bright blues, greens, and magentas as well. My favorite red dress (pictured below) was seated just a few rows in front of us. We spotted the woman with the Alexander McQueen head cage in one of the boxes during intermission.
It was certainly a brilliant start to our season!
Note: If you are local, but can’t get out to the War Memorial Opera House, you can also experience the San Francisco Opera in high definition on Thursdays on KQED (channel 9). Porgy and Bess will air this coming Thursday, followed by Aïda, Boris Godunov, and Lucrezia Borgia. I wish I had been a subscriber for Porgy and Bess as I loved it when I saw it ages ago in New York.