Locals call the feverish heat of parties, dinners and dances that surround the gala openings of the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera "Hell Week." Following hard on the heels of Labor Day and with the Jewish New Year falling right smack-dab in the middle, it was a particularly intense and pleasantly exhausting go-round for the social set this year. Of course, no one would want to start the fall any other way. For the glitterati, it is a post-vacation chance to show off the spoils of a slowly improving economy with haute couture and air kisses, and real music-lovers can party their way back into Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, too, with a program book in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.
The 91st season of the San Francisco Opera couldn’t have started with a more appropriate offering. The third appearance in repertory of director Robert Carsen’s legendary production of Arrigo Boito’s "Mefistofele" was first seen here in 1989 and most recently in 1994, but the years have done nothing to diminish its impact. The stunning musical pageant could survive another quarter-century if it continues to be curated this well.
Carsen’s vision owes everything to designer Michael Levine for helping create a breathtaking blend of spectacle and entertainment. From the overwhelmingly grand Prologue in Heaven (depicted, appropriately enough, with tiers of ornate opera boxes) to the almost equally impressive Epilogue (where Faust gets out of his pact with the devil too easily, and old Satan is carried off whistling in justifiable fury), director Laurie Feldman has mounted the original with care and attention to detail, and made certain all the remarkable imagery remains intact.
Boito was a good, not a great, and a definitely non-prolific composer, but he knew how to fashion a tight script (he was the librettist for Verdi’s late Shakespearean adaptations "Falstaff" and "Otello"), and his take on Goethe’s "Faust" is witty and concise, even if it is still awfully long. The start-stop nature of the scenario isn’t solved by Carsen’s massive staging, but it is made acceptable by sheer grandeur and his sweeping gestures. It is big-time opera lavishly produced.
The music is often beautiful, and the Prologue has always been a thrilling stand-alone concert piece. Memorable tunes abound, and while it seems laughable now that critics originally decried the score as too Wagnerian, there are recognizable motifs and weighty musical consonances. Conductor Nicola Luisotti respected Boito’s ebb and flow with a committed and passionate reading that will be better accepted as the run progresses. The crowd on opening night was just too rowdy to appreciate his luxurious approach. At the top of Act III, the maestro actually had to face the noisy revelers to ask for some quiet, a cringe-worthy moment that still couldn’t completely stop the Philistines among us.
Ramon Vargas as Faust in San Francisco Opera’s Mefistofele. Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO
It was Boito himself who finally shut them up with the power of his own dramatic writing, and the cast helped immeasurably, making the most of their broadly conceived but cleverly detailed roles. Ramon Vargas as Faust started small, though he ended well. He was lost in the shuffle during the Easter Sunday scene, and admittedly, his character is pretty namby-pamby, but we have heard him sing more forcefully and with sweeter tone before.
Maybe he was a little unfairly matched at first with the incredible Patricia Racette, who seems unable to take a wrong step onstage, all the while singing with her wonderfully nuanced voice. Her pitiful realization of the wronged Marguerite was as moving as her Butterfly in its own way, and we marvel at her willingness to disappear within a role.