There are bodies everywhere in the new production of Boito’s Mefistofele at the State Opera in Prague. They litter the stage in the Prologue, fill gurneys in the opening scenes of successive acts, even come shrink-wrapped at one point amid piles of produce before suddenly blossoming into writhing dancers. What they represent is never really clear. But the human detritus is in keeping with the general mayhem of the production, a boisterous, high-gloss affair that aspires to more than it achieves.

Štefan Kocán (Mefistofele) © Hana Smejkalová
Štefan Kocán (Mefistofele)
© Hana Smejkalová

A bit of historical context helps explain some of the messiness. Boito, a celebrated man of letters who wrote the librettos for two of Verdi’s masterworks (Otello and Falstaff), decided to try his hand at composing an opera at the brash age of 25. And not just an ordinary opera. Convinced that Italian opera had grown stale, he wanted to rejuvenate it with a revolutionary work employing new musical ideas and forms. For this nothing less than an ultimate confrontation of good and evil would do as subject matter, especially after Boito saw Gounod’s Faust and dismissed it as a weak effort unworthy of the source material.

The result is a long (three and a half hours, cut from a disastrous original five and a half hours) series of choral numbers interspersed with dramatic set pieces, most with text taken directly from Goethe’s seminal play. Extended monologues replace traditional melodies and arias, with the entire work through-written à la Wagner, another composer whom Boito derided. In modern terms, Mefistofele resembles nothing so much as a Broadway musical, with a thin thread of a plotline connecting big production numbers.

Štefan Kocán (Mefistofele) and Daniel Magdal (Faust) © Hana Smejkalová
Štefan Kocán (Mefistofele) and Daniel Magdal (Faust)
© Hana Smejkalová

Director Ivan Krejčí staged these to great effect, though with little imagination. To be fair, there’s not a lot to be done when 60-plus singers are crowding the stage. Krejčí showed some flair in keeping the chorus offstage for most of the prologue in heaven, where Mefistofele drops by to taunt God and makes a wager that he can corrupt the soul of Faust. When the singers finally emerged they were joined by cherubim winging their way in from limbo, roles charmingly played by the Pueri gaudentes boys’ choir, wearing nightshirts with too-long sleeves that they flapped with heavenly aplomb.

The State Opera Chorus was the star of the evening, repeatedly drawing extended applause for high-volume vocals filled with rich detail and delivered with thunderous impact. In particular, the tongue-twisting chants at the witches’ sabbath on Brocken Mountain in Act II were riveting. The chorus was enlarged for this production, drawing from the ranks of the world-renowned Prague Philharmonic Choir, and the vocal direction by chorus master Martin Buchta was superb, producing crisp, authoritative work.

Christina Vasileva (Margherita) © Hana Smejkalová
Christina Vasileva (Margherita)
© Hana Smejkalová
The set pieces in between were less successful, for a combination of reasons. Krejčí seemed unsure how to handle individual characters, who wandered the stage aimlessly or reeled awkwardly in shock or amazement, as if they had been given no direction at all. Faust was sung by Romanian tenor Daniel Magdal, a late replacement after a first choice canceled, and the substitution showed in a competent singer who lacked the gravitas for the role. That left the stage mostly to the title character, sung by Slovak bass Štefan Kocán, a powerful singer and suavely villainous actor who was perfect for the part. Czech-Bulgarian soprano Christina Vasileva cut a sympathetic figure as Margherita, soaring in an impassioned lament and death scene in Act III that bordered on screechy at times but earned her a solo curtain call and enthusiastic applause.

The production was not helped by a bare-bones set consisting of little more than an array of reflective panels and a long metal table that doubles as a catwalk in the crowd scenes. The silvery sheen worked in heaven, but over time became dull and numbing, even with the gloss turned down to a sterile white or pumped up to a brilliant gold. All the colorful settings – an Eastertide street in Frankfurt, Margherita's garden, Walpurgis Night in Ancient Greece – were left entirely to the imagination. Only the night on Brocken Mountain truly came alive, with the singers bathed in flickering red lighting that matched their fiery vocals.

Mefistofele has been a popular staple in the repertoire ever since Boito revised it in 1875, but short of an expert performance, it tends to overwhelm itself. It’s overly long, pompous, disjointed and musically inconsistent, innovative one moment and embarrassingly weak the next. Verdi summed it up best after seeing a production in Genoa in March 1879: “Boito lacks spontaneity and melody... He has a great deal of talent and aspires to originality, but the result sounds strange.” On this occasion, however, the result earned a standing ovation. Whatever else Boito may have lacked, he knew how to please an audience.

***11