Rarely performed, Boito’s Mefistofele is an audacious, spectacular opera, needing an audacious, spectacular staging to do it justice. That’s exactly what it gets in Balázs Kovalik’s production for Hungarian State Opera, pulling in audiences for the past five years. Kovalik throws the entire kitchen sink at it. Not everything made sense, but by the time Faust and Helen of Troy were cryogenically frozen in a space-age version of Ancient Greece(!), I was completely swept along. Add Golden Age huge voices and it made for a tremendous evening.

András Palerdi (Mefistofele) © Zsófia Pályi
András Palerdi (Mefistofele)
© Zsófia Pályi

George Bernard Shaw offered grudging admiration towards Mefistofele: “a curious example of what can be done in opera by an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts”. Boito is most famous for his libretti, especially adaptations of Shakespeare for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, and Mefistofele was his only completed opera as composer. Shaw preferred Gounod’s Faust as “a true musical creation”. Boito himself regarded Gounod’s opera as frivolous and superficial. Mefistofele is a completely over the top interpretation of Goethe’s legend, in four acts topped and tailed with prologue and epilogue. Running past midnight at its disastrous première, Boito cut about a third of his opera, but it still makes for a long, but rewarding evening.

In the Prologue, we see the devil make his wager with God that he can win the soul of Faust. Kovalik immediately grabs the audience by the throat in a stunning piece of theatre. Csaba Antal’s set design centres on a remarkable construction, a double-helix stairway, dominating the stage like a giant strand of DNA. Two angels tussle for supremacy, while 18 brass players – in costume – perform on platforms that rise to dizzying split-stage heights as Mefistofele breaks out of hell to make his outrageous bargain. Angels flew. Brass players and chorus filled the stairways. The devil had dropped his gauntlet and so had Kovalik. Challenge accepted. Breathless by the end of the Prologue, how could Kovalik possibly follow such a coup de théâtre without any sense of anti-climax?

Frankfurt Square was created by white model buildings carried on by the chorus, only to be destroyed – kicked, stamped upon or set fire to – by the devil in his aria “Son lo spirito che nega”. A cherub aids his chaos by shooting one of the townsfolk. Mefisto, with debonair grace, takes the pistol and shoots the cherub. He’s that sort of a guy. Faust woos Margherita, an innocent girl who plays with dolls, and the devil knows he’s got the upper hand.

Act IV of <i>Mefistofele</i> © Zsófia Pályi
Act IV of Mefistofele
© Zsófia Pályi

The Witches’ Sabbath is turned into a casino – all slot machines, dancing girls and topless cowboys. Mefisto presides over all, wrapping himself in an EU flag as his robes of state. In Act III, Margherita paces her cell, imprisoned for poisoning her mother and drowning her baby. At the height of her great aria “L’altra notte”, she writhes in blood and rejects Faust’s attempt to rescue her, earning salvation. The space age Ancient Greece, where Mefisto has transported Faust to win the heart of Helen of Troy, was wonderfully bizarre, acrobats floating in giant bubbles. In the Epilogue, the devil dismisses the crowd of tourists, wrapping them in blue plastic cloaks. A vision of Margherita hands Faust a Bible and Mefistofele is thwarted. Hiding beneath his great fur coat, cherubs sprinkle him with rose petals, while the chorus populating the double-helix discard their plastic robes. A falling angel plunges headfirst from the flies… Mefisto has been thrown out of heaven.

This is an opera which needs big voices and big performances. I have never heard a tenor with as enormous a voice as Attila Fekete, except on disc. Think Mario del Monaco crossed with Franco Corelli: clarion top notes, guttural low ones, stentorian delivery. “Dai campi, dai prati” was thrilling. It was rarely subtle; in softer passages, there was more than an element of crooning, but it was the sort of singing you’re not inclined to forget. András Palerdi was nearly Fekete’s match as Mefistofele. He doesn’t have a pitch black bass, more an elegant basso cantante in style, but it has a whiff of sulphur about it and comes with enough power to make an impact. Palerdi is a convincing actor too, snarling and sneering like the best of devils.

Attila Fekete (Faust), András Palerdi (Mefistofele) and Dániel Vadász (Wagner) © Zsófia Pályi
Attila Fekete (Faust), András Palerdi (Mefistofele) and Dániel Vadász (Wagner)
© Zsófia Pályi

Gabriella Létay Kiss initially seemed cautious, but she has little to do before the prison scene. In “L’altra notte’ she unleashed a soprano of great lyric-spinto power, long phrases arching gracefully. She also doubled as Elena, revealing rich mezzo depths. The chorus was outstanding, a huge sound on top of which they demonstrated that – in the right choreography – they can move well. Carlo Montanaro swept the Budapest Philharmonic along with him in a visceral reading of the score. Special praise to the brass section for its many on-stage duties; performing celestial fanfares form the top of a rotating stairway goes beyond the call of duty. Not a flawless evening, but an unforgettable experience.