San Francisco Opera (SFO) is now halfway through the eight-performance run of the first opera of their 91st season, having given their fourth performance last night in the War Memorial Opera House. That opera is Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. In writing about the beginning of this season at the end of last month, I suggested that, while the Faust legend is probably best known to opera-lovers through Charles Gounod’s Faust opera, Boito was far more sensitive to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dramatic conception of that legend.
This says much for Boito. Goethe’s play was a massive work whose complete version is in two large parts. The first part is the best known, since it involves the aged scholar Faust selling his soul to the devil in order to forsake his learned pursuits for more earthly pleasures, primarily of the carnal nature. In the second part one might say that Faust becomes the ultimate consultant, advising monarchs on such innovations as paper money and planning utopian communities. Meanwhile, Wagner, his former student, has taken over his laboratory and become the pioneer of artificial intelligence by creating a homunculus. Mephistopheles then abducts the homunculus, introducing him to the ghosts of the great philosophers, through whom the homunculus struggles (with little success) to figure out what it means to be. (Note that Faust himself is absent from all of these scenes.) At the end of the day (about the time it would take to perform this text in its entirety), the entirety of Goethe’s Faust probably covers far more ground than all four operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Thus, had Boito been more conscientious about “truth in advertising,” he might have subtitled his opera Meditations on Eight Episodes from Goethe’s Faust. With so much source material, one has to be judiciously selective; and Boito definitely made excellent choices. The most fascinating of these is Goethe’s “Prologue in Heaven” scene, the second of two prologues Goethe wrote for his first part. (The first is “The Prologue in the Theatre,” which was not set by Boito but was nicely honored by the SFO production, as I shall discuss later.) Boito follows Goethe’s conception that the drama to follow will be based on a wager made between Mephistopheles and God (treated as equals by Goethe) over who will have the right to the soul of the aged Faust, who has devoted his life to his studies. Boito accepts this as the motivating premise for his opera, which also justifies his treating Mephistopheles as his lead character, worthy of the opera’s title.
The first three acts of the opera then follow as an abstraction of the key points of the first part of Goethe’s drama: Faust observing the Easter Sunday revels with Wagner and silently brooding over the earthly pleasures he forsook, Faust signing his contract with Mephistopheles (after setting some of his own terms), Faust’s seduction of Margaret while Mephistopheles keeps her neighbor Marthe distracted, the orgiastic celebration of Walpurgis Night, and Margaret’s death and salvation. Boito’s final act conflates Faust’s encounter with Helen of Troy (in the third act of Goethe’s the second part) with the “Classical Walpurgis Night” (to which the homunculus leads both Faust and Mephistopheles). We encounter Helen, but not the homunculus. This is followed by an Epilogue in which Mephistopheles loses the wager.
Boito wrote his own libretto for this abstraction of Goethe’s epic, and one cannot overestimate the quality of his results. For those familiar with the full extent of Goethe’s narrative, one can appreciate the decisions he made and his skill in fitting together the pieces he selected. Those less informed about Goethe can still enjoy how a story emerges from his chosen sequence of episodes, as well as his attentiveness to the characters of Mephistopheles, Faust, and (however briefly) Margaret.
The SFO staging was conceived by Robert Carsen and is co-owned with the Metropolitan Opera. This is where Goethe’s first Prologue becomes relevant. “The Prologue in the Theatre” is a discussion (in rhymed verse, like most of the rest of the play) among a theater director, a poet, and an actor. The poet is trying to “pitch” his work by arguing how the craft of his art can elucidate the higher values of the nature of humanity. The actor, on the other hand, believes that spectacle is all that matters, since that is all the audience really wants.
If Boito’s opera has an unwritten subtitle, then Carsen’s staging might well be entitled The Triumph of the Actor in the context of Goethe’s prologue. He has dished out spectacle in great abundance, every instance of which seems to fit in perfectly with Boito’s score, much of which involves both instrumental and choral episodes that set context before advancing the plot. For the record, I have seen exactly one production of Goethe’s two parts. However, I was fascinated enough to see it a couple of times. In “The Prologue in the Theatre,” the part of the theatre director was performed by the actor performing the aged Faust, the part of the poet was taken by the younger, transformed Faust, and the part of the actor was taken by Mephistopheles. Thus, Carsen’s prioritizing of the actor’s values from Goethe’s prologue parallels Boito’s prioritizing of Mephistopheles as the lead character.
What is particularly important about Carsen’s approach is that it add breadth when Boito is expressing himself through his music, rather than through the words in his libretto. This is most evident in his evocation of Heaven in the opera’s Prologue and Epilogue. However, it adds substance to the Easter Sunday scene, turning what could have been an amusing diversion into the subject of Faust’s brooding over the lifestyle he had chosen to reject. It also provides a somewhat unique point of view of Margaret’s final hours, whose validity I am willing to grant, even if it did not quite suit my personal taste.
Once again SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti triumphed in providing a solid account of all of the music through which Carsen could weave his dramatic interpretation. There is even a scene in which Ildar Abdrazakov’s Mephistopheles plays at being the conductor, and the chemistry between Abdrazakov and Luisotti could not have been more effective. Patricia Racette was also good at capturing the ordinariness of Margaret during the seduction scene and then portraying her as totally deranged in the third act. The only disappointment was that Ramón Vargas was only able to sing during the first act, due to an allergy problem. He acted his part for the remainder of the evening with Antonio Nagore covering the vocal work from the side of the stage. Under the circumstances, it was just as well that Mephistopheles was the central character.