Mefistofele Review, Part II, the Production – San Francisco Opera does full justice to Boito’s masterpiece

I first saw Boito’s Mefistofele in October 1965, almost half a century ago, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role.  It changed my life.

Nicolai Ghiaurov; photo courtesy Classical Autographs

I had seen a handful of operas before then and enjoyed them, but they were nothing special.  But I was totally unprepared for the tense excitement of the music, color, and action of the Prologue.  I remember none of the details, but that performance gave me my first intimation of the intense pleasure I have since found in a great variety of operas since then.

Samuel Ramey; photo of DVD cover, San Francisco Opera, 2000

 The opera is played all too rarely, and I have seen it only twice twixt then and now – but both of those featured the immortal Samuel RameyNew  York City Opera 1989, and here in San Francisco in 2019.

MVP award; photos SFOpera archives

But I want to talk about a specific opera performance I have just seen:

San Francisco Opera’s rendition of Boito’s Mefistofele on September 11, 2013.  If opera were like baseball and handed out an award for the Most Valuable Player, my choice  would be Nicola Luisotti and Ian Robertson, conductor and chorus director, for their outstanding control and direction of the orchestra and chorus. They took the awesome score that Boito gave them and served it up with perfect balance.  Maestro Luisotti had his 69-piece orchestra under pin-point control, whether filling the hall with glorious song from the 90 choristers, 24-member children’s choir, and one or more of the 6 soloists – or accompanying a pianissimo love duet.

Design Team (no photo available for Revival Director Laurie Feldman); photos SFOpera archives

And if I had two votes, the other would go to the design team of Producer Robert Carsen, Revival Director Laurie Feldman, Designer Michael Levine, and Lighting Designer Gary Marder for their outstanding sets, costumes, and stage effects.  All of the dancing and stage motions were in perfect accord with the music – no trivial accomplishment considering the full stage and the wild variations of the village party, saturnalia, and classic Greek scenes.

Ramon Vargas as Faust; video clip

There are three major roles in Mefistofele and I don’t know where you’ll find three better voices than the established stars Ramón Vargas (Faust) and Patricia Racette (Margherita) and the up-and-coming Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele).  This is the fifth time in recent years that I have seen Vargas.  I always enjoy his voice, but is acting leaves something to be desired.  The problem is that I am always aware of the fact that he is Vargas.  He never convinces me that he is Don Giovanni MetHD 2011), Werther  (SFOpera 2010), Rodolpho (Met HD 2008 – Encore 2010), Lenski in Eugene Onegin (Met HD 2010).  But oh, that voice!

The three faces of Patricia; Goddess & Sadder: video clips

From where we were seated (row S), I couldn’t make out Patricia Racette’s facial expression, but after looking at some of the close-up pictures I have a much greater appreciation of her acting ability.  Her costume, her wig, her expression, and her posture, showed Margherita as two different people before and after her rape.  And when she came on as Elena in Act IV she was totally different from either of them.  Whoever she was, she had a sweet rich voice that totally fit the part.

Prologue: Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele; video clip

I can’t honestly say that Abdrazakov was the best Mefistofele I had ever seen.  After all, as I mentioned above, I had twice seen Samuel Ramey in the role – and it’s not fair to compare a mere mortal with Ramey.  But Abdrazakov was damned good, and I would cheerfully go see him again.  His bass voice was tremendous, and he was most convincing as an actor.  Just look at the mockery in face and body as he “praises God” in the Prologue.


Every element of this performance was excellent – and when SFOpera puts all those elements together in perfect harmony, the result is perfection.  I won’t go  far as Faust: “If I would haply say to the moment flying, ‘Stay thee, for thou art blissful’ Ah! let me die then,  And let hell there engulf me!”  but those 3+ hours in the War memorial Theatre were indeed Blissful.  You too can experience them by buying a ticket at San Francisco Fall 2113.  But  hurry, the last performance is Wednesday October 2.


San Francisco Opera 
301 Van Ness Avenue 
San Francisco, CA 94102 
(415) 861-4008

For Part I of this review, clich here.
Except as noted, all photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera 
Video clips are from Mephistopheles 5 minutes highlights (2013), SFOpera
Cropping and arrangements by Philip Hodge
Quotes in italics are from a libretto translated by Theodore T. Barker













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