In composer Arrigo Boito's version of the Faust legend, our favorite Biblical tempter returns for another celestial duel with the god who kicked him out of heaven. This time the fallen angel hisses at how low Man has sunk, and how he's not worth corrupting anymore. Riled, God's faithful cherubs challenge the monster to take on Faust, a philosopher who's morally above the rest in another high-stakes gamble to steal a soul. Of course, the devil accepts and sets out to debauch his next victim.
It has been seven years since Samuel Ramey played Mefistofele in a Houston Grand Opera production. The opening night show at Wortham Center's Brown Theater proves another would be hard-pressed to rival Ramey's seasoned, dastardly-sharp bass. The devil has been one of his signature parts after Norman Treigle dominated the role until 1975. Boito's libretto sees to it that we hear a lot of the hairy-chested divo in this four-act show with prologue and epilogue. Sporting flaming-red hair, Ramey breathes comfortably as the sardonic villain, and the composer's subtle blend of comedy, satire and morality tale are solidly evoked by producer Robert Carsen, Met director Peter McClintock and set designer Michael Levine. What's tiresome about this show is the occasional mixture of period concepts. While the practice is limited to only a few silly scenes, the jumbling of eras through wild costume and choreographic juxtapositions reflects an intellectual cop-out that has taken hold in the glitzy, take-few-creative-risks game of big-city opera. Although Boito's universe leaves plenty of room for period experimentation, the prologue's baroque chapels and statuary suggest pre-20th-century sets will be in order.
Faust falls into Mefistofele's snare on Easter Sunday. The devil comes poking around the holiday revelry clad as a friar. Faust, joined by his student Wagner, is disturbed by the mysterious cleric who lurks in black. When all three are alone, the devil unveils his disguise, announcing himself as the spirit that denies all things and longs to ruin everything. Mefistofele makes Faust an irresistible offer, a promise to serve him on Earth and one moment of real happiness in exchange for his soul after death.
Ramey understands the pride we've come to expect from Christ's nemesis. His Satan takes a cue from that lovable literary hero of Milton's Paradise Lost who thought it better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. In Act Two, at the Witches Sabbath, he's kingly among the heathen. Here, Ramey's deep, mournful strains demand homage from the worshipful sorcerers surrounding him. "Make way for your king! Ye putrid race," he sings in a parody of God. Through the show he struts open-chested in scarlet red pants and matching coat whose tails drag the ground. He seems slightly silly with red hair, but not too silly if you remember who he is.
As Faust, William Joyner sounds disappointingly thin, especially against Ramey's overpowering bass. Joyner's tenor evokes a clarion luster but fails to project to the rear of the orchestra section. But in duets with his lover Margherita, soprano Patricia Racette, there is more room for contrast. (Racette was just here in February for an impressive HGO stint as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata.) Racette infuses every note with the sublime tragedy of Margherita's plight. Her portamento is facile; her coloratura like silk, even when the prison scenes require her to kneel or bend in supplication. Blinded by love, Margherita accepts Faust's potion for her mother, which turns out to be poison. Later, imprisoned for murder and drowning the child she bore Faust, she refuses to escape with him when he visits her.
Faust's wish for happiness comes in the rare illusion of Elena, Helen of Troy back in her home of ancient Greece. Mezzo-soprano Sondra Radvanovsky brings regal nuance to the Trojan woman. Faust's first encounter with the wraith is deftly choreographed. Bearing sconces to light their way, he and Mefistofele walk toward the stage alongside the audience when Faust spots Elena. But if we're supposed to be in ancient Greece, why the ruined temples? And why do the dancers' costumes owe nothing to the historical reality Mefistofele has conjured in this scene?
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Despite these inconsistencies, Alphonse Poulin's choreography can be inspiring. In Act Two, after Mefistofele hurls the glass globe before his minions, the dancers line up in front of the curtain, spanning the entire width of the stage. The devil's back is to us, and he resembles Vincent Price as he sways and conducts the choir in an ocean of song. The prologue's choir scene isn't so effective, although it takes one aback at first. During the overture, after the curtain removes the cloud-visions floating against the scrim, many in the chorus are seated as the chorus sings God's praises. Slowly clusters of choristers stand, and then more, until all are standing. This plodding movement visually belies the celestial airiness of the beautiful voices. It would be better if they would stand as the curtain rises.
Equally puzzling is some of the garb in the opening acts. For starters, the devil switches from his red outfit to a 1920s, vintage pink top hat and suit in Act Two. Confusing, since this isn't a 1920s production of this opera. In Act One, before the devil reveals himself to Faust, revelers are dressed in motley apparel for an evening of carousing. They could be from any period --16th, 17th, 18th or our century. We get one guy in a red-and-white-striped jacket who'd look just as comfortable in a Gay '90s barbershop quartet. Others wear straw skimmer hats from the '20s. They all come together with a crowd dressed in tatters in a familiar kind of Hollywood dance revue. While everyone is milling about, a male and female clad in fig leaves descend from a high platform. Adam and Eve? It's anybody's guess. Their presence is passed off as so banal, it doesn't really matter who they represent. Their scant clothing reminds us this is supposed to be a party. Then two poorly dressed partygoers high on the platform pretend to copulate. All of this takes place on the street, but in what period, we can never discern. Since we can't pin any one costume down to any one era, we can't be troubled by the sexual gyrations. We can only be titillated without being allowed to know what it all means.
These hokey juxtapositions are flimsy substitutes for the genuine period realism producers eschew these days. But since Ramey, Racette and the chorus have their virtuosic moments, the scenic hodgepodge doesn't detract from an enjoyable show. Opera demands a lot of audiences, most of whom rely on surtitles. Why it's asking too much to be faithful to a single era or none at all is befuddling.
Houston Grand Opera performs Mefistofele in Italian with English surtitles at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater on Saturday, May 8, Tuesday, May 11, Friday, May 14, and Sunday, May 16. Tickets are $26 to $176, sold to nonsubscribers when a ticket to Resurrection is also purchased as part of a two-show package. Call (713)227-