How lucky are we – two greats of the operatic stage in one week, courtesy of Opera Australia! Just as we were suffering from Kaufmann withdrawal, legendary bass Ferruccio Furlanetto took us on a demonic ride in the title role of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele.
Boito is probably most renowned for being the librettist for Verdi’s final masterpieces: Otello and Falstaff. Those who attended a performance of After Aida, presented a few days ago at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre were able to gain a fuller appreciation of his work – and his insecurities. Initially staged in 1868 to loud disapproval, the five-hour Mefistofele version was withdrawn, severely edited in terms of length and accessibility, and given a second premiere in 1875/76, when it was much more favourably received. It has remained in mainstream operatic repertoire ever since, an important vehicle for the world’s great basses.
It is also a brilliant showcase for an opera company’s chorus. Among the most significant of Boito’s changes was the addition of stirring choral sections and creation of an extended Prologue in which a mystical choir of angels and cherubim sings God’s praises and backs Faust in a wager with Mefistofele and his lures. It is the classic fight between good and evil, love and hatred. Dramatic shifts in dynamics, assertive brass alternating with delicate winds and harps, were part of a complex interweaving of instrumental and vocal layers. Brass were featured in the pit, off-stage and in an on-stage consort of two horns, three trumpets and three trombones. The augmented OA chorus excelled in their various character groups, including Penitents, with the twenty members of the OA Children’s Chorus making astonishingly effective buzzing cherubim – a testament to fine, disciplined training.
The other highlight of the Prologue was, of course, Furlanetto. Although this was a concert performance, his depiction of a jaded, cynical devil contemptuous of both God and man captured the essence of character with panache. There was a relaxed, amused nonchalance coupled with an undertone of sneering menace as this Fallen Angel defied the forces for good and, later, in his seduction of Faust. Impressive in its power and richness at key moments, Furlanetto also had a lightness of vocal touch reflected in the playful orchestration of much of his music.
Melbourne audiences have enjoyed Diego Torre’s performances for many years now, finding his ringing tenor voice always pleasing, well-focused and reliable. He was unflagging in the challenging role of Faust, shining brightly in arias, duets and larger ensembles. Boito might have changed the emphasis of the title from his inspiration – Goethe’s Faust – to Mefistofele, but the centrality of the role of Faust continues in the quantity and quality of the music he is allocated.
As Margherita, Leah Crocetto looked resplendent in glittering pale teal and sounded much the same. She did project a tone of youthful innocence at the beginning of the first encounter with Faust, but her upper notes were far from girlish in their expansive power. Margherita’s Act 2 aria is probably the most familiar number in the opera and was sung with passion and the kind of soaring dynamic that can only be fully appreciated in the theatre. For all the wonder of certain fabulous high notes, sometimes smoother and more focused quieter moments were just as impressive.
Natalie Aroyan provided plenty of vocal and physical allure in her portrayal of Faust’s other love interest, Elena. Aroyan’s dramatic abilities are outstanding, and her voice is consistently full, smooth and generous. She made a totally credible Helen of Troy, always “in the moment” and alive to the narrative.
In the smaller roles, Sian Sharp was a pleasing Marta/Pantalis, her mezzo-soprano voice warm and attractive, and Iain Henderson was a creditable, no-frills Wagner/Nereo.
Boito’s Mefistofele might not have the succession of popular tunes of Gounod’s Faust or the musical imagination of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, but there was a great deal to admire in this performance. Conductor Andrea Battistoni elicited some excellent playing from Orchestra Victoria and harnessed the choral forces to outstanding effect. Evocative lighting – ranging from celestial overhead spots to demonic red washes and glowing golden spots for the ship-launching Elena – increased the theatrical impact.
Any fan of operas in concert, allowing the music and singing to take centre stage, should embrace the opportunity to enjoy this seldom-performed major work of the eighteenth century with such an outstanding cast.
Photo courtesy of Opera Australia.
Heather Leviston reviewed Boito’s “Mefistofele”, presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on May 25, 2022.