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Boito fancied himself something of an Italian Wagner, storming La Scala with cutting-edge ideas, but he emerged less a revolutionary than a footnote to Verdi. How apt that the Washington Opera’s production of his Mefistofele unfolds in a metaphysical opera house, its infernal red curtain ablaze, its boxes packed with angels watching the devil’s challenge to God play itself out.
This deliriously inventive Robert Carsen/Michael Levine staging from San Francisco carries through its metaphor of theatrical illusion brilliantly. Faust chases Margherita around a hand-cranked apple orchard, Helen of Troy turns up as a 19th-century diva in some cornball neo-Grecian opera, and throughout, Mefistofele plays cosmic impresario, ordering sunny mornings painted on the backdrops or strong-arming angelic subscribers out of their seats to enjoy the farce he’s produced. Mefistofele has long been a signature role for bass Samuel Ramey, and his huge velvety voice and deadpan wit steal the show, whether he’s railing against heaven with a cigarette dangling disdainfully from his mouth or finishing a passionless game of solitaire, half-dressed next to a wardrobe rack full of red devil-tuxes.
William Joyner makes a boyish, robustly sung Faust, and Nelly Miricioiu, though long in the tooth for both heroines and beginning to sound like “Callas: The Later Years,” is really quite riveting. The chorus gets an entertaining workout in a trippy Easter festival and loopy Witches’ Sabbath-cum-New Year’s Eve party, and conductor John DeMain holds the sprawl together impossibly well. This production is not to be missed, but you may have to strike your own satanic bargain to get tickets to this thing. (If you’re still luckless, you can catch up with the original San Francisco Opera production on video.)
Così Fan Tutte
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
To March 24
Mefistofele preaches the stand-ard gospel of 19th-century opera: Women are Pure, Sex is Dirty, Temptation equals Death. Mozart and Da Ponte’s wry, Age of Enlightenment vision of trench warfare between the sexes, Così Fan Tutte predates Boito by nearly a hundred years yet feels a hundred times closer to our own world. In fact, Victorian indignation can be thanked for a century-and-a-half of Così’s neglect. And even with the opera’s return to favor in the last 50 years or so, it’s been dogged by charges of empty-headedness and misogyny. Of course, uncomfortable sexual politics are what give Così its juice, and the gender skirmishes are more balanced than detractors might suggest. Yes, the story of two men disguising themselves and seducing each other’s girlfriends to test their fidelity can make those women appear flighty. But the opera plays like one long entrapment, and by the end, their men come off damn stupid and more than a little sadistic. It’s left to the cynical old bachelor, Don Alfonso, and free-loving chambermaid, Despina, to administer grains of salt and plead tolerance for la bête humaine—small consolation to lovers who suffer a ruder awakening than anyone in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Washington Opera’s revival of its Jean-Pierre Ponnelle–directed production of Così—restaged by Roman Terleckyj—turns the opera on its head by having Fiordiligi and Dorabella eavesdrop as boyfriends Guglielmo and Ferrando make their fidelity wager—allowing the ladies to thrust and parry, to playact, to give just as good as they get from their male counterparts. That said, the subdued antics of the men and the women’s response—all hangdog hurt and archly raised eyebrows—turn an already stately production static and nearly laughless for much of the time. Act 2 pays tremendous dividends, though, following the stratagems and revenges on both sides of the plot, until the men’s farce yields the stage to the women’s drama. Peter Sellars may have mined more belly laughs and psychic pain in his dark-night-of-the-soul update, but Ponnelle/Terleckyj’s is just possibly the more radical deconstruction.
In a cast of strong Mozarteans, Richard Croft’s mellifluous Ferrando (Jerry Hadley performs the role March 22 and 24) and the ever-enchanting Jan Grissom’s Despina are perhaps the most freshly appealing, and Paolo Montarsolo’s geriatric-sounding Alfonso the richest in lived-in character detail and Italianate gesture. Things could percolate more in the pit, but the composer’s wind writing is ravishing under Richard Bradshaw’s baton.
Mefistofele and Così bring the Feinstein era to an impressive close, and if the recent Domingo gala was an accurate barometer, singing
standards should remain high. Beyond the star power generated by Samuel Ramey, Denyce Graves, and The Man Himself, there was much pleasure to be had hearing the next wave of potential glitterati, most spectacularly the young French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay. And with stage directors like Herzog, Lamos, and Moshinsky coming on board next season, the Domingo years may indeed offer as much hope as hype.CP