Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele is an opera that is not as good as it sounds. It has marvelous, effective, moments such as the barn-storming Prologue and Epilogue in which the Devil confronts God and his heavenly choir and which book-end the opera with thrilling choruses. Along the way we encounter Faust’s lovely “Dai campi dai prati”, which he sings in his study as he’s concentrating on the Bible, Margherita’s moving Prison Scene (“L’altra notte”), a semi-hallucination about the death of her mother and baby, and the tender “Lontano, lontano” duet, and Faust’s woeful “Giunta sul passo estremo” at the start of the epilogue... all thrilling and worthy of the best of Romantic Italian opera.

Christian Van Horn (Mefistofele_
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

But… but. We also hear a run-of-the-mill Easter Sunday scene, a meeting between Faust and Margherita (and Mefistofele and Marta, Margherita’s neighbor) which is so brief as not to allow any characterization, a Witches’ Sabbath that repeats itself and seems there solely for sensationalist purposes, and a sudden transport to Ancient Greece where Faust meets Helen of Troy. In other words, good meets evil, devils fight with angels, lovely lyricism alternates with bombast and second-rate material. Boito’s libretti for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff are masterpieces and there’s no denying his ambition as a composer, but this opera rambles and has no personal voice: a superb student, Boito picks up styles and phrasings from Verdi and late Donizetti and stints on originality and character.

Robert Carsen’s production (with Michael Levine’s sets and costumes) are as all-over-the-place as the opera itself. Heaven is an opera house, with the Heavenly Host behind a sky-like scrim wearing white with gold crowns; they sit in stage boxes as well. Mefistofele climbs onto the stage via a ladder; he wears bright red (matching his hair) and takes a pair of shoes out of a violin case. The wildly busy Easter scene has life-sized Jesus and Mary, stilt-walkers, and Adam and Eve tossing apples to the crowd. The Walpurgisnacht – a trial, musically – shows us a hundred revelers in party hats, wearing onesies, or underwear, with prosthetic penises. Helen of Troy looks as if Titian would have painted her, except that he would have left off the bustle. A hodge-podge.

Mefistofele at The Met
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

There were some very high points in the singing, however. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn had a great success in his role debut as the eponymous devil, his even, well-rounded voice somewhat more potent at top than at bottom, but superb nonetheless. Carsen has his Devil as Conductor – a snide, nasty leader - and the lithe, in-shape Van Horn dominated the stage, and managed to carry off wearing a pink-and-white striped suit with style. All ears were on house favorite, tenor Michael Fabiano, and he remains an uneven singer. Always singing off the text and throwing himself into the role, the middle of the voice is gorgeous but high notes are unreliable and sometimes either crack or come in south of pitch. Angela Meade, costumed in a white baby-doll dress, also sang unevenly, occasionally thrilling, at other times sloppy about pitch and in both cadenzas in her Prison aria. Jennifer Check, in the ungrateful role of Helen of Troy (why not have one singer for Faust’s two loves?), was earthy and loud, while the dark-toned Samantha Hankey impressed as Pantalis, Helen’s companion.

Angela Meade (Margherita) and Michael Fabiano (Faust)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Carlo Rizzi kept the huge choral passages together but lacked the ability to have them build in any way other than volume and there were some ragged passages in ensembles elsewhere. He accompanied Van Horn handsomely in his three big arias, but rushed the others.

What can one say? The performance, like the opera, seemed to equal more than the sum of its parts. Mefistofele, as was proven over and over again in the ‘60s, ‘70s  and ‘80s at the New York City Opera (starring Norman Treigle and then Samuel Ramey) can be a crowd pleaser with the right bass-baritone and Mr Van Horn certainly fills the bill.