The start of the evening’s première was spectacular, with a giant steel construction coming into view in the auditorium. The skeletal tunnel in the background created an imposing frame for an extravagant staging. This production of Mefistofele is Roland Schwab’s début at the Munich opera house, and he made full use of Germany’s largest stage by filling it with infernal special effects. Disappointingly, this pushed Arrigo Boito’s actual opera very much into the background.

Joseph Calleja (Faust), Chorus and Dancers © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Joseph Calleja (Faust), Chorus and Dancers
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

Without question, I have rarely seen in Munich a set so overwhelming as the one in this Mefistofele. So on the Witches’ Sabbath in Act II, the whole stage was transformed into a giant purgatory in which the chorus, armed with a hundred torches, billowed in waves that took the breath away. These were images that you would only expect from the stunt shows in Hollywood or in the Bregenz Festival.

But the richness of the experience reached the point of overload, in places becoming nearly compulsive. Why is a gramophone on stage for the entire opera? Why has Arcadia been placed in a geriatric care home, where the chorus is playing catch with the carers? And why does one of the Devil’s sidekicks paint the letters “REUE” [remorse] in blood on Faust’s shirt? Ideas which are actually quite deep – such as the projection of light from the auditorium onto a single central screen – are submerged in the overall spectacle. Mefistofele's “Son lo Spirito che nega sempre” at its diabolical best could not change that.

As well as the début for Roland Schwab, this was the first performance in Munich for conductor Omer Meir Wellber, who seemed accordingly nervous, continually casting glances high up at the director’s box. But Wellber was genuinely impressive in holding together the opera’s many different voices. He led the orchestra to infernal climaxes with wonderful variety and detail in the sound, while always maintaining togetherness with the enormous chorus. There even was space for a small experiment: the overture was accompanied by a noticeable clicking, supposedly coming from the gramophone record.

Joseph Calleja (Faust), Andrea Borthini (Wagner) und Chorus © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Joseph Calleja (Faust), Andrea Borthini (Wagner) und Chorus
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

As expected, Joseph Calleja was the star of the show in the role of Faust. He sang everything with lightness, sometimes even frailty, but always with lovely strength, just as Boito’s opera requires. As the whole chorus, clad in Dirndl and Lederhosen, danced on the tables and, in the background, the stage machinery brought in a glittering merry-go-round, the sensitive beauty of Calleja’s timbre led the audience with magical phrasing cutting through the pandemonium. In sum, there was not a single moment when Calleja was anything other than fully involved on the stage.

For sure, this was not a complaint that could possibly be made about René Pape in the title role: clearly, he was utterly absorbed in the role of Mefistofele. Pape’s voice has volume to burn, as he projected only a small dose of cynicism – appropriately for the role, which seems tailor made for him. He whistled, he sang, he made a thoroughly hellish spectacle with a clear voice and a smooth, somewhat restrained bass.

Soprano Kristine Opolais disappointed as Margherita. Her opening notes were faltering and failed to convince. She managed to act the part of the desperate, manically sick double murderer of child and mother, but her Arias were more solid craft than Italian grandeur. The audience seemed unimpressed, with rather more appreciation being shown to Sören Eckhoff for his leadership of the chorus. The Bavarian State Opera’s adult and children’s choruses conjured up the whole spirit of Boito’s opera as it ranged between heaven and hell. The occasional wobble should be readily overlooked, given the substantial number of chorus passages.

René Pape (Mefistofele) © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
René Pape (Mefistofele)
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
In the end, Mefistofele stood alone on the stage and destroyed the gramophone, from which the heavenly choirs had been audible. One of many points that somehow died in the expanse of the totally sold out Staatsoper. Sado-masochism, pyrotechnics, Oktoberfest, techno party and post-apocalyptic video event: this Mefistofele from the Bavarian State Opera appears to be desperately searching for a political interpretation.

But why? Boito’s libretto already deconstructs Goethe’s original extensively and requires you to be expert in the work. God is long since dead and the devil isn't far off either. The overall view of this première would have been improved if the evening’s musical fireworks had been allowed to work their magic, without the need for the assembled hellish machinery. None the less, it was an impressive début, even if the applause at the end was more restrained than overpowering.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin