by Jan Neckers
Let’s start with the main assets of the new Mefistofele in Amsterdam: the singers. Gidon Saks has one of the biggest booming bass voices that ever sounded in an opera house (yes, I heard Ghiaurov but Saks had a few decibels to spare). It’s not an especially beautiful or personal sound and it is somewhat weak in the lower regions, more a bass baritone than a real bass; but it is smooth and impressive and very well apt for this title role. Saks gave us such an overwhelming amount of sound that by “Ecco il mondo” the voice slowly started to give way. As his role is somewhat limited afterwards he nevertheless could ride out this matinee (17th of October 2004). With his imposing height, his easy flowing movements on the stage he proved himself to be a superb actor.
Tenor Dario Volonté actually has four voices but let me first state that his is not a small voice as one can read sometimes on other opera fora. First there is the deep dark burnished sound of the lower voice, partially produced with the lowered larynx method of Corelli. This sound sails into a very beautiful lyric middle voice somewhat reminiscent of a good Italian tenore di grazia though some people might think the vibrato perhaps too excessive (though not this reviewer). But, in the passaggio we hear an odd strangulated and somewhat throaty sound that we know so well from his countryman, José Cura. And from that ungainly or sometimes even downright ugly sound suddenly emerges a clear and strong high A or B. Capped by all this is one of the most beautiful pianissimo sounds I ever heard in the theatre. His amazingly beautiful “Lontano, lontano” was clearly modelled upon Ferruccio Tagliavini’s classic recording and it could be proof that Mr. Volonté is more of a lyric tenor than his choice of heavy repertoire would lead us to believe. He is not a bad actor but his “physique” is such that he looks far better as an old man than as the young Faust.
The years have taken their toll on Miriam Gauci’s voice. Ten years ago she was one of the best liricos around with a beautiful and homogeneous voice somewhat reminding one of Mirella Freni. The voice has grown somewhat bigger but has developed a wobble. Above the staff there is only shrillness and no beauty left. Her Elena was better than her Margerita, though in both roles she made no visible impression due to some cheap rags she had to wear.
I know it is politically correct in circles of Met attendees to deride conductor Carlo Rizzi and I wonder why. Two years ago he gave us an excellent Macbeth in this same theatre (Carol Vaness was the superb Lady) and this time too he chose perfect tempi, driving the opera along without unduly hurrying his singers so that they could breath. The orchestra (a radio orchestra which is doomed to disappear) played along for him as if they wanted to prove that they have the right to life and they easily matched the far more famous Concertgebouworchestra under Chailly in Don Carlos a few months ago (though Volonté is not Villazon).
There remains the fly in the ointment and, as so often in this theatre, it was the director: Graham Vick, one of those theatre people who think that Boito wrote this opera as a vehicle to one of the greatest gifts of God to humanity: the genius of Vick himself. Vick tried to kill the opera by overloading it in the well-known disastrous Zeffirelli-New Met-Opening-Manner. Almost every scene had a new and often laborious set change and, as there were five such changes, this added half an hour to the proceedings, which often broke all musical suspense. At the première, the Dutch press noted that Rizzi showed his opinion by ostentatiously drumming with his fingers during those changes. During rehearsals, there had been several terrible rows with Vick who refused to budge one inch on his original concept, though he was himself often unclear on his intentions due to a lack of preparation. Vick vented his anger for his own fault on the theatre and its personnel, which they didn’t take lightly. At the final rehearsal, and contrary to usual theatre policy, nobody was allowed to attend. As a result, the performances had to be moved up half an hour at the very last moment; and, for the première, several employees had to phone, e-mail or sms every known guest of honor and ticket buyer to ask them to spread the good news. Vick added insult to injury by demanding that the magnificent chorus sing one of the greatest choral parts in operatic history behind the scenes.
And still, this production was not a complete failure as there were some devilishly beautiful scenes. The first scene, played during a village feast somewhere in modern Germany, was full of colour and opulence. The revolving scene didn’t break down as with Zeffirelli’s Anthony and Cleopatra. The Greek scene was a faithful reproduction of the famous reading room at the British Museum, though I don’t think some beautiful young ladies and young men would be allowed into the building without the smallest piece of textile at all. But, you know, Greece and Greek statues etc., though these statues usually didn’t move or strike sexy poses. On the other hand the Walpurgis night was simply ridiculous as it all took place within a circle of 25 large refrigerators. All in all, every scene was often more impressive than the whole of it. At the première, Vick was almost booed off the scene; probably the ultimate proof in many a director’s mind that he/she is a genius. One more proud and well deserved medal in a catalogue of unbroken triumphs.
Mefistofele: Gidon Saks
Faust: Dario Volonté
Margherita/Elena: Miriam Gauci
Marta/Pantalis: Sally Burgess
Wagner/Nerèo: Carlo Bosi
In Heaven Mephistopheles offers God a wager: he says that he can succeed in seducing the learned Faust onto the paths of evil and that he will gain possession of his soul. God accepts.
Mephistopheles travels to Frankfurt disguised as a Franciscan monk. He enters Faust’s study and convinces him to sign a contract.
Mephistopheles and Faust are in a garden with Margherita and Martha, her neighbour. Faust converses with Margherita and seduces her. To prevent their being disturbed, he gives Margherita a powerful sleeping-draught for her mother.
Mephistopheles and Faust travel to a witches’ sabbath on a mountain top. Faust beholds a vision of Margherita, pale as death with a blood-red rope around her neck. He hears Mephistopheles’ curse upon the world.
Margherita is in prison awaiting her execution. She has been accused of having killed her child and poisoned her mother. Faust attempts to convince her to flee with him, but she refuses. She recognises Mephistopheles as the devil and prays for forgiveness. Choirs of angels announce the salvation of her soul.
On the banks of the Peneios in ancient Greece, young girls perform a dance in honour of the full moon. Helen of Troy and her companion Pantalis lament the fate of Troy. Mephistopheles and Faust appear. Faust professes his love for Helen and they withdraw to a cave.
Faust sits in his study in Frankfurt. He has grown old and thinks back upon all he has experienced. He realises that his life has been mere vanity. He dies with the Bible in his hand, without giving in to the last temptations sent by Mephistopheles. Faust is welcomed by the angelic host into Heaven.