“Mefistofele” by Arrigo Boito, a spectacular free for all with the colors and lusty spirit of Carnivale, just finished its brief run at San Francisco Opera after getting the season off to a raucous start with this wild ride through the story of Faust. It’s a fast moving magic carpet ride through Hell, a twisted Scrooge; and Laurie Fabulous Feldman directed the revival.
Basically the Devil laments that the mortals of Earth are no longer fun to be amid since humanity has become so full of debauchery that folks have neutered him in his effort to negate purity and beauty. Then he spies Faust, a pious old scientist who sees Heaven in the stars but has never experienced it on Earth and yearns to do so before he dies. So much so, he makes a deal with the Devil, Fausts' soul for a moment of satisfaction. The fight between God and the Devil for Fausts' soul begins.
This universal struggle also appeared live in theaters all over the world. Much of the world had a chance to experience this grandeur as the final production of 'Mefistofeles', October 3, simulcast in theaters worldwide. The next worldwide live transmission will be 'Lucretia Borgia' in 2014 with Renee Fleming.
As befits the distribution, universal talent, soprano and beloved San Francisco alumna Patricia Racette lent her trademark poignancy and martyrdom to the production as a plain, sheltered girl who gets bedeviled when Faust falls for her. The predator Mefistofele takes advantage of her romantic naivete’ and uses lovesick Faust as his instrument of death and suffering. Tall and dark Ildar Abdrazakov plays Mefistofele with aplomb. Only Greer Grimsley could have done it sexier but he’s in “The Flying Dutchman”, SF Opera’s new production opening October 22.
Racette’s double duty
Meanwhile Racette also sings the title role in the world premiere of another story of a victim of evil, Stephen Kings' “Dolores Claiborne”, the last night being October 4. It’s a contemporary story of an evil father molesting his daughter, who the opera dresses as a Catholic school girl and not at all the sympathetic dark and tortured pale thing she appears to be in the film with Kathy Bates as her long suffering battered mother.
Racette shows a lot of stamina this season as that production has her in almost every scene although her appearances and songs in “Mefistofele” are a walk in the park comparatively. Granted it’s a park of pain, turning from Garden of Eden into a prison where she has gone mad from injustice and suffering. It’s a nice complement to Racette’s Puccini work in the old maudlin war horse “Madame Butterfly” and Puccini’s brilliant triptych a few years ago “Il Trittico”.
Racette stepped up after Dolora Zajick, for whom the part of Dolores Claiborne immortalized by Kathy Bates was written, withdrew.
Racette seems more age appropriate at 48 to play the Kathy Batesian heroine but she performed the coquettish virgin Margherita with girlish appeal. "My mother's a light sleeper" she admits to Faust, who wants to come over that night. Racette also played a teenager in love in “Il Trittico” but strictly for laughs and played it straight believably in this tragedy. Her bustiness made her naïve character’s smitten girlishness humorous as the audience sees a sight gag of sorts. It’s not just her innocence the wolf Devil is after.
The innocence and awkwardness gets played for laughs indeed in the part where she frolics in the apple grove, the Garden of Eden. She has a quartet with Wagnerian size Erin Johnson looking like the fat lady at the circus in a bright yellow extravaganza, Abdrazakov in a dapper song and dance tuxedo and Ramon Vargas as Faust. Nice that opera doesn't take itself too seriously but then again this isn't Wagner.
Vargas is about the same size physically as Racette so it's cute casting. His stature and his voice are smaller, less overpowering than the bass baritone's, which add credibility to his character's moral weakness and vulnerability if not gullibility. Hell, even Ildar Abdrazakov gets drowned out and appears to be lip syncing against the enormous chorus. Unintended humor about the Devil being immasculated is still humor.
It gets over-the-top ridiculously funny and the rotating garden, a merry-go-round, should have spun out of control and perhaps flung the riders off as the thing flies off its axis. Other than this the sets are imaginative and magnificent. Mozart in all his romantic mischief would have loved them especially the merry-go-round gone awry.
Nevertheless. It’s all the more funny by the casting of ever-so-long-time supernumerary Kimberly Thompson. Thompson stands a petite five feet tall if that and she played a bent-over shrouded apple cart lady who hand cranks the merry go round while the four lovers frolic on it, the one being your typical looking Wagnerian opera diva, at least twice Thompson and Racettes' size. Thompson emails about her scene with the merry go round, "I exit the garden turner scene though a gauntlet of those prosthetic body suits when I leave the stage. WoooooHooooo!"
Ian Robertson’s 90
Thompson also got to play an angel in the good versus evil sets, one full of blue sky and clouds as the angels watch in Heaven from opera boxes as Faust and the Devil compete for Fausts' soul after the promise of it to Mefistofele in exchange for Fausts' earthly rapture. It’s an enormous spectacle, with 90 choristers and 45 supernumeraries. The chorus of angels sounds empowered with the voice of God and Ian Robertson’s chorus never sounded so glorious and spirited.
The Easter Sunday street parade welcoming spring with abandon opens Act I. It’s with opera dancers who looked raucous and New Orleanian, bursting with energy and vibrant color, gymnastic strength and limber muscles. The public coupling of a topless Adam and Eve who strip under their apple tree, actually a parade float, looks particularly French Quartarian and evokes that kind of debauchery, the kind that’s cathartic as it’s sacreligious but a response to religious oppression and domination. The revelers do not shrink back into the shadows to say the least but get into the spot light. Alfonse Poulin choreographed. Gary Marder designed the lighting.
The cast of 183 weighs in as follows: 6 principals, 90 choristers, 30 children choristers, 12 dancers, 45 supernumeraries.
Kicking the debauchery up a notch, the Walpurgis Night follows with a party of the Devil. The underworld fills the stage with cabaret costumes resembling those sexy numbers one may have seen in the Mets' “Tales of Hoffman” a few years ago. The men come out and dance and schwing in their fetish gear, many costumes appearing crotchless. There are however at least two pairs of real breasts.
All hail Pamela Rosenberg
Only the front rows will tell us for sure but the extra male choristers wore prosthetics complete with fake hair for their full frontal nude frolic, front and center across the entire stage. Some may feel it harkens back to the Eurotrash days of Pamela Rosenberg, before Texan David Gockley. Plus given the average age of an opera goer is about sixty and supers who are probably in their forties and fifties under all that make up . . . the point is nobody in the house is a Chippendale dancer except the real opera dancers.
Nevertheless the shock value of sorts made it absolutely entertaining and European. Geriatric Rocky Horrorian even. Don’t dream it, be it. Too bad opera is so hard to sing along with but one can always lip synch.
Musicians from Hell
It’s a fast paced engrossing carnival ride through the 19th century and beyond, starting with a robust and virile bass baritone Ildar Abdrasakov climbing a ladder out of the pit to the stage. He carries a violin case, adding to the sight gag that the orchestra musicians are in Hell. Nicola Luisotti conducted.
He’s wearing bright red pants and slicks his black hair with a comb. Most of the production Mefistofele seems to be baring his broad chest showing his arrogance and vanity. Abdrazakov performed comfortably about the stage and this swagger added to the enjoyment of the character as he seemed to relax and enjoy the game of seduction and sadism.
With that said, Happy Halloween. Where do I get one of those prosthetics for my costume this year? Good Vibrations? The opera gift shop?
TICKETS AND INFORMATION
Standing room and student rush tickets cost $10 cash, available just before each performance. The opera hires many volunteers.
The opera quotes:
Subscriptions for San Francisco Opera’s 2013–14 Season are priced from $152 to $2,712 for Full Series (8 operas) and $78 to $1,695 for Half Series (4 or 5 operas); these prices reflect discounts of up to 30% over single ticket prices. Thematically designed Mini Series (3 or 4 operas) are priced from $94 to $1,206, with savings up to 10%. For travelers, Out of Town Series offer two or three operas in two or three days and are priced from $70 to $1,017, also with savings up to 10%. Subscriptions are on sale to new and renewing subscribers beginning January 14, 2013 at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, by calling (415) 864-3330 or online at sfopera.com.
Single tickets for San Francisco Opera’s 2013–14 Season cost from $23 to $385.
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