When I think of Mefistofele, I tend to think of Sam Ramey, in a pair of horns. He was the outstanding Mefistofele of one generation; Chaliapin was the outstanding one of an earlier generation. Last night at the Met, the role was assumed by Christian Van Horn, an American bass-baritone.
Mefistofele is an opera by Boito, the famous librettist (La Gioconda, Otello, Falstaff, etc.). What? Yes, Boito is known chiefly as a librettist, but he wrote the music for Mefistofele—the libretto, too. The composer was wise in his choice of librettist.
Satan ought to be personable. Was he? Yes, and Christian Van Horn did not resort to hamming.
In the pit last night was Carlo Rizzi, the Welsh-speaking Italian maestro. He led the Welsh National Opera, you may remember, for about fifteen years. While there, he learned to speak Welsh, which even Welshmen don’t.
He was superb from the beginning last night. From the opening measures, you knew you were in good hands. You could sit back and relax, because the entire evening would be intelligent and musical. Rizzi never put a foot wrong. He was knowledgeable and natural. I kept thinking of the word “composed.” Rizzi was always composed, even when the music was frenetic.
I will give you a detail. Act IV has a little prelude, or an orchestral opening, at least. It was tight (in the good sense) and stirring. This was an excellent little example of smart conducting.
The orchestra played surpassingly well for Rizzi (and Boito). Special acknowledgement is due the low woodwinds and the low strings—and the harp. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is a very good orchestra, but performances vary from night to night. Why? To a large degree, because conductors do. That is, there is always someone else in the pit. Think of the Met Orchestra as a horse, a prize stallion. How the horse behaves depends a lot on the rider.
Carlo Rizzi is currently conducting both Tosca, the Puccini opera, and Mefistofele at the Met. I heard him in Tosca last week and he was exemplary. (I will discuss this Tosca in my forthcoming “New York Chronicle” for the magazine.) Last night, listening to Mefistofele, I thought, “The Met is about to have a new music director—who may stay in the post for a great many years. Will he be as good as this Welsh-speaking Italian?”
Boito assigns a key role to the chorus—and he would have liked the Met’s, a lot. From this crowd, “heavenly chorus” was not just a cliché. And they were just as good as a satanic chorus.
Speaking of Satan, he was, again, Christian Van Horn. Right from the start, he was commanding. He knew his notes, he knew his words, he knew his role. His technique was pretty much unfoundering. At times, I would have asked him for more sound, but this was of little consequence.
Satan ought to be personable. Was he? Yes, and Van Horn did not resort to hamming. Unhammily, he scampered around bare-chested, like Sam (Ramey). Van Horn is a fit fellow, which the moviehouse broadcasts, in particular, will like.
Vocally, he was as fresh at the end of the night as he had been at the beginning—maybe even more so.
Mefistofele is the title role, but the lion’s share of the singing, I think, is done by the tenor who portrays Faust—and that was Michael Fabiano, another American. He sang some poor notes—some effortful ones—and some good notes. The good notes outnumbered the poor ones, by a lot. Fabiano sang some great ones, too. Overall, this night was a triumph for him.
In the part of Margherita was Angela Meade, a third American. This soprano has two great gifts: volume and lyricism. The combination of volume and lyricism in singing is practically unbeatable. (By “volume,” I really mean power.) Meade sang her music clearly and knowingly.
Margherita’s aria is “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” and I felt a bit sorry for Meade here. Many of us have Maria Callas or Leontyne Price in our ear. We hear their phrasing, their inflections. Their drama, their nuance. I could have stood more drama and nuance from Meade—but she sang her aria creditably, no doubt.
Let me provide one detail. Meade went up for the high B piano—soft. She stopped phonating for a second or two—that is, sound stopped emitting from her mouth—but she resumed, and she was brave. She was brave because she insisted that the B be piano, which it was.
The role of Elena, i.e., Helen of Troy, is assigned to another soprano. And she was a fourth American, Jennifer Check—who looked splendid but did not sing with her best, Check-like voice. She will again, and it will be a wonder.
The Met’s production is that of Robert Carsen, from 1999. It is a colorful, unabashed production, suited to the work. Finally, think of Arrigo Boito—who, in addition to writing those (unstalable) librettos, composed this opera, which is still going, after 150 years, exactly.