The 91st season of the San Francisco Opera opened with a revival of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele in Robert Carsen’s well-traveled production. The staging extends Shakespeare’s metaphor: if the whole world’s a stage, then heaven, quite naturally, must be an opera house. Heard in the second performance (11 September), the singing voices of three superb artists and 90-plus men, women, angels and demons enlivened Carsen’s over-the-top trappings with moments of lyric beauty and drama.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Last viewed on the San Francisco Opera stage in 1994, this production has long since achieved classic status through its stops around the United States, abroad, and on DVD. Beginning in 1988 as a co-production between San Francisco and Geneva, Carsen’s setting with designs by Michael Levine was mounted in Chicago (1991), Houston (1996) and New York (1999), before being sold to Turin’s Teatro Regio in 1997. Its triumph as seemingly the only vision for Boito’s sole contribution to the operatic repertory (the composer’s final and unfinished opera Nerone is almost never produced), is historically tied to another one-of-a-kind property: bass Samuel Ramey. When the San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera joined forces to re-purchase the production in 2012, it was with hopes that a new performer could step into Ramey’s shoes and capture some of the magic that first excited crowds 25 years ago.

The singer at the center of these plans is Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov. Though he may not possess Ramey’s clear, booming low notes or that artist’s same satanic savoir-faire in the title role, Abdrazakov’s portrayal was confident and authoritative, more than justifying the dusting off of Boito’s score and Carsen’s show for an auspicious role debut. More baritone than bass, Abdrazakov’s voice is an impressive instrument: gorgeous in the middle and upper reaches while remaining steady and responsive no matter how much he moved about in this physical workout of a portrayal.

To elevate the opera’s wordy libretto and occasionally awkward dramaturgy, a charismatic and capable Mefistofele is an absolute necessity. Here, San Francisco Opera complemented the excellent Abdrazkov’s with two veteran artists and a top-notch chorus that made as strong a case for the opera as could be hoped for. In his role debut as Boito’s Faust, Ramón Vargas portrayed his character’s post-bargain adventures with an adolescent’s wide-eyed gusto. Though the brilliant sheen of his tenor took some time to warm up, Vargas’ artistic manner and fine taste were in evidence throughout. In the double role of Margherita and Elena, soprano Patricia Racette gave a stellar performance that accounted for several of the evening’s highlights. In the ensembles, her gleaming soprano was the sound around which the other voices and orchestra seemed to operate and revolve. Where Abdrazakov carried the celestial and underworld scenes with appropriate swagger, Racette’s Margherita was the human center of this sprawling, metaphysical drama. Her “L’altra notte” in Act III was perfectly heartbreaking, a staggering display of vocal detail, agility, and characterization. Had this been a 19th-century performance, I doubt anyone in the audience would have objected if Racette temporarily suspended the dramatic narrative to repeat the aria, so beautiful, noble, and moving was her singing. San Franciscans are scheduled to hear quite a lot of Ms Racette in the season ahead (title role in world première of Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, title role in Madama Butterfly, Julie in Show Boat, a one-night only performance of her cabaret act) and this portends a very promising year. There is no excuse for missing this superb artist on the local stage in 2013–14.

The other leading character in this opera is the chorus and Ian Robertson’s crew were exemplary. Asked to change costumes repeatedly – and, for some, to go without, baring all during the Walpurgis Night scene – the San Francisco Opera Chorus met every physical and vocal challenge. Music director Nicola Luisotti, again, showed his passion for late 19th-century Italian repertory with a vigorous and detailed reading of Mefistofele. My one criticism, albeit a significant one, is that his fervor inspired dynamic levels from the pit with which the singers could not possibly compete. One case to the contrary was Luisotti’s tender treatment of Faust and Margherita’s duettino “Lontano, lontano”, but at other times it was difficult to make out any of the words due to the orchestra’s towering accompaniment. That said, the closing chorus, with its ascending theme and building intensity, achieved so loud and palpable a climax that the spontaneous rush of adrenaline I experienced remained long after the curtain calls.

****1