My favorite Italian-language opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, may not be so obscure, but nevertheless it rarely appears on stage, so despite my enthusiasm I have never actually seen it. Until now, that is: this evening at the Czech National Opera in Prague.
The music is sublime, but I wonder if the main reason this opera does not appear often is that it’s probably difficult to pull off convincingly. It consists of a series of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, selected by Boito to try to capture the mysticism of that huge work, but in the process leaving out much of the character development. There is a lot to read between the lines (which are often Boito’s idiomatic translation from Goethe).
The central figure in this setting is of course not Faust, but Mephistopheles (hence Boito’s chosen name for the opera), so a performance will live or die on who fills that role. Slovak bass-baritone Štefan Kocán had sufficient charismatic stage presence and a dark biting voice (often more bass than baritone in a welcome way). But he did not always project sufficiently, and had to come to stage front and center to deliver many passages or else his voice would have gotten lost (and despite this, he was still inaudible during the finale, overwhelmed by the celestial chorus not only in the action – he is defeated and pelted by flowers – but also in that we just did not hear his defiance at all).
The National Theater is not an exceptionally large house, so it should be easily within the power of singers to fill the room. But this seemed to be a problem for most of the cast – Kocán was actually the best at projecting. Italian conductor Marco Guidarini actually led a restrained performance, very careful not to overwhelm the singers while nevertheless still keeping the drama (that said, the restraint did come at the cost of drama in some of the larger passages, and the celestial brass chorales never shook the hall as they should at key times, the backstage brass coming across more tinny than heavenly, as if from a pre-recorded track).
Argentinian tenor Raúl Gabriel Iriarte had a weakish-voiced but idiomatic Faust. This role does not require a fully dramatic tenor, so the somewhat more lyrical approach worked. I just would have appreciated a larger sound. As Gretchen, the expressive Alžbĕta Poláčková (from the Czech National Opera’s house team) did mostly manage to project, and was clearly a hometown favorite. The rest of the cast was mostly adequate.
Of course, pulling singers to the front of the stage to help them project more had as a drawback that it removed them from the effective action on stage. In this case, I suppose that was OK – as the action on stage distracted from the plot. This opera, as a series of scenes not always clearly related for those who have not read the original Goethe saga, could support numerous interpretations. This one, by Ivan Krejči, was not one of them. Static when the libretto called for action (the witches’ sabbath, for example) it was otherwise active with lots of strange choreography (including by dancing human hors-d’oevres at a banquet that does not appear in the plot). I think Krejči tried too hard to make this a psychodrama and to give us visions, but if he did want that approach he should have related those visions to something in the text.