A 'Portable' Devil
GIUSEPPE PENNISI visits Pisa for
Arrigo Boito's 'Mefistofele'
Arrigo Boito's 'Mefistofele'
Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele is an opéra maudite, or an opera over which a bad spell seems to hang. It was a fiasco when the seven-hour-plus of music was first premiered on 5 March 1868 at La Scala. It was a major hit when drastically revised and reduced. The present version (about two and a half hours of music) was staged on 4 October 1875 in Bologna. This version was successful until World War II. Then, it disappeared nearly everywhere. In the USA, I remember a good production by New York City Opera in the 1970s, constructed around the bass Norman Triegle. In Italy, only a few conductors appear to like it. (Read 'The Devil and the Bourgeoisie', 18 March 2010.) A real determinant is the major effort and huge cost to stage it: eight principals, three choruses (for a total of nearly two hundred singers), dancers, mimes, complex stage settings as the action proceeds from Heaven, to medieval Germany, to Hell, to ancient Greece, and a large number of special effects. This is enough to scare the managers of large and well-funded theatres.
This is the reason why this production by Pisa's Teatro Verdi, in collaboration with the opera houses of Lucca and Rovigo, deserves attention: it is especially designed for medium size and small theatres as well as to be 'portable'. It may also interest foreign lyric institutions. I saw and heard the opening 18 March 2016 performance in a theatre crowded to the hilt, as Mefistofele had not been shown in Pisa for nearly fifty years.
I consider Mefistofele the only real attempt — along with the second part of Mahler's Eighth Symphony — to capture the spirit of Goethe's poetry. Of course, this is only an attempt due to the immensity of Goethe's Faust. There are naïve sections and uncertainties and some rough, not fully polished moments. But this adds to its charm.
The main challenge was how to adapt Mefistofele to medium size and small theatres, and how to transfer it from one stage to another: Pisa's Teatro Verdi has a stage thirteen metres wide by six metres high; Lucca's Teatro del Giglio is even smaller. Director Enrico Stinchelli's simple idea was to use computerized projections and special effects prepared by Biagio Fersini and MAV (Mad About Videos — a video production company based in Malta). The costumes were hired from a well known theatre tailoring outfit. The two hundred chorus members were taken from the Tuscany Lyric Chorus and two local semi-professional groups; in the Prologue in Heaven they were placed on steps behind the projections. The Mahler-like orchestra, under the baton of Francesco Pasqualetti, overflowed from the pit, with brass and percussion in the first and second tiers of stage boxes; this gave a stereophonic touch to the performance but some niceties of the score were lost.
Nonetheless, the orchestra delved into the very difficult score, where a Wagnerian symphonic approach blends with Italian melody: a real jewel from The Prologue in Heaven panoply to the highly intense finale. Then, the three choruses effectively merged their voices; the choral element is one of the opera's real protagonists and did extremely well.
Giacomo Prestia (well known in Verdi) made his debut in the title role, singing and acting quite well. He showed a very clear timbre and agility when going from low to high register and vice versa. Margherita was sung by the young but very promising soprano, Valeria Sepe; she sang the known aria 'L'altra notte in fondo al mare' extremely well. Elisabetta Farris was Helena of Troy; she has only one but impervious aria 'Notte cupa, truce' with a difficult B natural which she handled quite well. Faust was Antonello Palombi — a vigorous and generous tenor with a huge volume but slight emission problems in the first act and in the final scene. The orchestra under Francesco Pasquarelli's baton was able to cover these problems and very few people, if any, in the audience noticed them.
The audience was enthralled and applauded for nearly ten minutes.