Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Devil to Play

I wrote the following review last month but unfortunately my good friends at Opera Britannia were not able to publish it. Though it is a bit late I thought I would post it anyway for anyone who cared to give it a read.

The 2010 season at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma got off to a dull start in January with a Falstaff under Asher Fisch that was musically lacklustre and theatrically dated. We had been promised a “new” production and what we got was an “old” retread of the same ideas Franco Zeffirelli had back in 1964 when he staged the Verdi-Arrigo Boito masterpiece at the Old Met. For Boito's Mefistofele, the second of the season's offerings, we were promised a new “old” production. “Old” in that the designs were inspired by sets created in the 1930s by Camillo Parravicini, a principal designer in Italy and more specifically Rome in the mid-20th century. The “new” was director Filippo Crivelli and scenographer Andrea Migilio's concept that used computer technology and video projections of the Parravicini's water colours in an effort to bring pictorial life to Boito's words and music.

Unfortunately too often the gap between concept and realization is a wide one. Though Miglio and video designer Michele della Cioppa gave us more than a few remarkable stage pictures the fixed set of risers – like an Industrial age Odeon – did not allow for much more than background effects. Some of those effects were stunning but there is only so much that can be done with projections when dealing with a stage full of singers, chorus and dancers. At certain points the production team seemed to have run out of ideas and resorted to old fashioned follow sports and set pieces.

The curtain rose in total silence on a loan figure in 19th century costume, reclining in the centre of the risers he was regarding a musical score. As much had been made in the programme notes of the failure of Mefistofele at its first performance at La Scala in 1868 (what we see today is the composer-librettist's 1875 revision) and the projections were Milan of the period it was implied that the figure was Boito himself. Though this was not totally clear even when at the end the same figure appeared on high and scattered sheets of music paper over the body of Faust.

As the music began he was joined by the chorus in drab period dress who settled around him to hymn the Almighty. At that point Miglio and della Cioppa showed what they were capable of. Elements of the Parravicinni decor were projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage. We saw close ups, long shots and pans of his conception of Heaven; it was a stunning visual counter point to the trumpet calls and the varied choruses of mystic voices and cherubs. It must be recorded with a touch of amusement that just as the Devil himself entered a Microsoft pop-up appeared warning of a rise in temperature and a possible overheating of equipment. But other than that one small glitch it was a stunning example of what can be done to wed music and technology. Unfortunately nothing else for the remainder of the evening was to equal it in invention or execution. Strangely the opportunities offered by the Witches' Sabbath were either missed or half-baked: the globe proffered to Mefistofele was nothing more than a large disco ball that swung across the stage. Perhaps the production team had indeed run out of ideas, perhaps time – the season was planned very last minute – or, more likely, money – opera house budgets here have been cut by 30% - but the entire concept had an air of the half-baked. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next revival to achieve its creators' full intentions.

That revival may be a while in coming; it should be noted that this was the first performance of Mefistofele at the Teatro, as opposed to the Caracalla summer seasons, since 1959. Despite its considerable worth it is one of those works that sits on the fringe of the repertoire waiting for a star bass who wants to impress his public with his range, whistle and charisma. In the past the presence of a Chaliapin, Pinza, Christoff, Rossi-Lemeni, Treigle or Ghiaurov have been sufficient reason for its revival. More recently Samuel Ramey made it his calling-card in various houses, most often in the witty, tongue-in-cheek production Robert Carsen originally stage for Geneva and that is available on DVD.

As is customary Teatro dell'Opera fielded two sets of principals for this revival. The opening night Mefistofele was given to Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov (right). A young singer, he certainly had all the voice necessary for the big moments and there are times when the part seems to be one big moment after another. However what was missing was the charisma, the sort of stage presence that I recall Ramey bringing to the role in Chicago in 1992. Mefistofele must dominate the evening and here for all his vocal abilities Anastassov failed. Clad in a red vest and shirt, reminiscent of Michael Levine's design for Carsen, he spent a great deal of the time flicking his long hair like a Milan model and for some reason kept looking and often seemingly wanting to wander into the wings. He also was awkward when asked to handle cloaks and robes. He bungled the moment when the Friar reveals himself as the Devil and more importantly when he envelopes Faust in his red cloak to take him on his devilish journeys. Unfortunately that rendered the projections that followed incomprehensible. To make it work Mefistofele, the opera and the character, needs a protagonist who's abilities go beyond the musical.


A good deal was written about Stuart Neill on opera blogs and in the media after the La Scala opening night to-do in 2008. Much of it was unflattering comments more about his size than his voice and much was unjustified. Yes, Neill is a very large man and it may be necessary to suspend disbelief when imagining him as a young cavalier but vocally his Faust was the most consistent and thrilling performance of the evening. He has a big Italianate voice that he uses to fine effect if at times with a certain lack of refinement. He is not afraid to let loose in some thrilling fortissimo when needed but is also capable of delicacy in his phrasing. As thrilling as the big sounds were , and they were thrilling, the small phrases – an almost whispered “Pace, pace” as he first approaches Marguerite in prison and the musings of the elderly Faust - also left an impression. And he successfully scaled his sound down to blend with Amarilli Nizza in “Lontano, lontano, lontano” which had a sweetness and melancholy that saved it from descending into bathos.

Nizza had begun the evening in the Garden scene with her voice sounding covered, a very unflattering costume and wig and coquettish stage direction giving her the air of a superannuated school girl. By the prison scene, hair shorn and in a brown shift, she had found herself vocally and dramatically and confirmed the impression she made in 2008 in the Caracalla Butterfly. “L'altra notte” had the required pathos and power but also was of a piece with her singing during the entire scene. Doubling the role of Helen of Troy she delivered a dramatic vision of the burning Troy and she and Neill blended well again in a beautiful “Ah! Amore! Misterio celeste”. Though once more I question the less than flattering costume and wig that designer Anna Biagiotti felt was befitting the most beautiful woman in the world.


Also questionable was choreographer Gillian Whittingham's needless attempt to turn “Notte cupa, truce” into a Merce Cunningham dance piece. The rest of her choreography was pretty standard village may-poling with the perquisite semi-naked couple and it would be a challenge to see the operatic concept of hellish behaviour go beyond the Fellinesque caressing of thighs and lascivious licking of lips.

What was never in question was work of the splendid Rome Opera chorus. Under Andrea Giorgi they have proved to be a saving grace in several productions this past three years. Along with the Voici Bianche di Roma children's chorus – can anything be more delightful than that swarm of cherubs Boito created to worry his Demon – they gave full voice to the miraculous invocation of Heaven which opens and closes the opera. But they also excelled as the demonic voices in the Brocken Scherzo even at the breakneck speed taken by conductor Renato Palumbo.

Despite a worrisome tentativeness to the opening trumpet calls – what is is about Italian orchestra brass sections, even the horns of the famed Orchestra Santa Cecilia have problems – he led a performance that was bold and when required bombastic but he never allowed the orchestral sound to swamp the singers. At times he may have taken the score a little too seriously – the rather enchanting merry-go-round accompaniment to the Garden quartet needed more sparkle – but he had the full measure of the Prologue and Epilogue.

As a sidebar the often distracting Italian surtitles have been jettisoned for this production and quite frankly were not missed.

29 aprile - Santa Caterina da Siena

3 comments:

David said...

If you don't have a bass with huge charisma, don't do Mefistofele; you're right. I saw a rather ingenious production in Savonlinna with a far too young Finnish bass in the title role. And Alistair Miles at the ENO, strong singer though he is, is no titan of the stage.

I guess Bryn could do it. But it's a piece not exactly stuffed with inspiration.

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

your review makes me sad i missed it..

islandeat said...

Hi, Will. I do hope all is well with you and Laurent in Rome.

I have given you a Sunshine Award (you, my little sunshine) on my blog. Please drop by to read what I wrote about you, and don't bitch-slap me for this!

Dan