Review: World Treasure – Carsen’s Magnificent “Mefistofele” Returns to San Francisco Opera – September 6, 2013

In the late 1980s the Canadian production designer/stage director Robert Carsen burst onto the world stage, establishing his credentials with an extraordinary production of Boito’s “Mefistofele” for the Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1989.

The San Francisco Opera, that signed on as a co-producer with Geneva’s opera, presented the work later that year as a vehicle for Samuel Ramey, documenting the production with a popular DVD.

[Below: Mefistofele (Ildar Abdrazakov, center) presides over the Witches’ Sabbath; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Nineteen years since its last appearance, the production (S. F. Opera’s share sold, then repurchased, and now co-owned with the New York Metropolitan Opera) has returned for the opening night of San Francisco Opera’s 91st season.

As with each of the five opening nights since he assumed the San Francisco Opera’s musical directorship, Conductor Nicola Luisotti proved an impassioned and intelligent exemplar of the Italian operatic repertory, summoning from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus an intensely lyrical reading of Boito’s richly melodic score.

The international cast was led by Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele, Mexican lyric tenor Ramon Vargas as Faust and American soprano Patricia Racette in the dual roles of the despoiled virgin Margherita and the otherworldly Helen of Troy. Each of the principals had abundant opportunities to shine.

Abdrazakov had only appeared in San Francisco in 2005 as Mustafa in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” with his wife, Olga Borodina as Isabella.

I had previously reported on two of Abdrazakov’s appearances at the Kennedy Center [see Ildar Abdrazakov is Don Giovanni in the Pascoe Production’s Revival – Washington National Opera, October 7, 2012 and The Italian Girl in D.C. – May 18, 2006]. I held no doubt that Abdrazakov would charm San Francisco Opera audiences with the devilish antics that Boito and Carsen devised for his character.

[Below: Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In his great showpieces Son io Spirito che nega and Ecco il mondo, he was convincing to an audience with a fond collective memory of his great predecessor, Samuel Ramey, in this role (and costumes).

As the object of Mefistofele’s bet with his celestial adversary, Vargas caressed Boito’s romantic melodies that are so well suited to his lyric tenor voice.

[Below: Faust (Ramon Vargas, left) woos Margherita (Patricia Racette, right) in a garden; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Patricia Racette  had appeared in this production in the role of Elena (Helen of Troy) in 1994.

As is usually done, in this performance she sang both Elena and Margherita, bringing vocal power and dramatic tension to the affecting scene of Margherita’s imprisonment for murdering her mother and infant child.

[Below: Patricia Racette as Margherita; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


 Arrigo Boito, Robert Carsen and Hugues Gall: An Historical Note

Although I report with pleasure that each of the three principals was impressive vocally, and the musical performance in totality was of the highest level, I feel the most impressive part of the the Carsen “Mefistofele” is the production itself.

One of the Italian cultural geniuses of the mid and late 19th century, Arrigo Boito created an opera that at least superficially more closely resembled its source material – Goethe’s Faust Parts One and Two – than Charles Gounod’s much more famous (and more theatrically focused) opera.

[Below: a scene at the fair; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]  


In the second decade of the 21st century, Robert Carsen’s international reputation as part of the inner circle of the greatest production designers and stage directors of opera and theater is secure.

Well into the ninth decade of the 20th century, however, he was a relatively unknown assistant stage director, doing much of his work in Geneva, Switzerland.

[Below: Production designer Robert Carsen; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


In one of his most perceptive assignments, the Geneva Opera’s then general director Hugues Gall (whom we remember from his later leadership of the Opera National de Paris and as mentor to the Los Angeles Opera’s music director, James Conlon) requested Carsen to create an important new production for the Grand Theater.

Devising an astonishing mix of elegance, color and high camp for “Mefistofele’s” disparate scenes, Carsen created a festival of images that seem as fresh and imaginative today as in its first months of existence a quarter century ago. The production’s immediate export to San Francisco and later runs at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera National de Paris and elsewhere, assured that this product of the 34 year old in whom Hugues Gall had such faith would achieve cult status.

[Below: the heavenly hosts in the Robert Carsen production of “Mefistofele”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]



I strongly recommend this opera, production, cast and creative team, and suggest it is worth traveling a long distance to see this “Mefistofele” at the War Memorial Opera House.

I plan to report on elements of the production in more detail in a review of a later performance in this San Francisco run.