The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Germany) produced a lively new production of Boito’s “Mefistofele” conceived by Director Philipp Himmelmann and conducted by Stefan Soltesz, utilizing an ingenious setting by Johanne Leiacker, and imaginative costumes by Gesine Vollm.
Erwin Schrott’s Mefistofele
The title role was sung by Uruguayan basso Erwin Schrott.
Although I had previously enjoyed his performance as Figaro [Fine Cast Revives Strehler’s Treasured “Nozze di Figaro” Production – Opera National de Paris, May 31, 2011], displaying his mastery of Mozart’s controlled classical style, this was my opportunity to hear an “unleashed” Schrott, singing full out in one of the great 19th century Italian roles for the bass voice.
[Below: Erwin Schrott as the Prince of Darkness; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
Schrott’s mammoth, expressive basso voice dominated the opera. He dispatched both of Mefistofele’s two great arias – the whistle-filled Son lo spirito che nega sempre and Ecco il mondo with the rich, deep sonorous bass voice that the role requires. He deserves his recognition as one of the innermost circle of current performers of the role.
Charles Castronovo’s Faust
Previously, I had reviewed Castronovo’s performances in operas of Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet and Catan, several in roles, like Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” or Ernesto in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, that require intensely controlled breath.
In a conversation with Castronovo four years ago [Rising Stars: An Interview with Charles Castronovo], he had expressed his desire to pursue roles that allowed him to sing out freely, as so many of the lyric tenor roles of the French and Italian repertories allow him to do.
[Below: Charles Castronovo as Faust; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
Castronovo’s voice has developed a size and luster, with a pleasing tenor vibrato and a baritonal heft, that nicely accommodates the Italian role of Boito’s Faust.
His brilliant sound was memorable in the role’s big aria Dai campi, dai prati. Castronovo was a strong presence in duets with the two women he pursues – Margherita (Alex Penda) and Helen of Troy (Angel Joy Blue) – subsequently, in each case, being joined in a trio by Schrott’s Mefistofele
Alex Penda’s Margherita
Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda created the image of the young and vulnerable Margherita, who succumbs to the lust of Castronovo’s Faust, venomously encouraged by Schrott’s Mefistofele (her seduction accompanied by some of the most eloquent melodies of the opera). The consequences for the character of one lustful night are devastating, resulting in madness and imprisonment.
[Below: Margherita (Alex Penda, second from left, kneeling) is encouraged by Mefistofele (Erwin Schrott, left) and Faust (Charles Castronovo, right) to enjoy a night of amorous lust; edited image, based of an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
Margherita, in L’altra notte in fondo al mare, chronicles both the death of her mother by a poisoned sleeping potion given her by Mefistofele, and by her murder of the child from the evening’s resulting pregnancy. At the beginning of this, Margherita’s great showpiece aria, Penda at first performed it, as if sobbing while singing softly, then her voice grew to make a powerful effect.
[Below: Faust (Charles Castronovo, in skulls’ eye, above) reaches down to try to rescue Margherita (Alex Penda, front center) from prison; edited image, based on an Andrea Krumper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
Alex Penda’s big voice has proven effective for several of the dramatic roles of the German repertory [see Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015 and Review: A Finely Crafted “Fidelio” from Stephen Wadsworth – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2014.]
Penda’s strong grounding in the Italian repertory [see also The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010] was evident in her Baden-Baden Margherita.
Angel Joy Blue’s Helen of Troy and other Cast Members
Angel Joy Blue was a lustrous Helen of Troy. Her duet with Castronovo’s Faust Forma ideal, purissima leading to a trio with Schrott’s Mefistofele was breathtakingly beautiful.
I had last seen Blue in live performance in the role of Clara (who sings George Gershwin’s most famous operatic melody, Summertime and the Living is Easy, [see Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera – June 21, 2009.])
[Below: Angel Joy Blue as Elena; edited image, based on a Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
Those in the excellent supporting cast included Slovakian mezzo-soprano Jana Kurucová as Marta, Norwegian tenor Bror Magnus Tødenes as Wagner, Chilean-Swedish mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini as Pantalis and Austrian tenor Rudolf Schasching as Nereo.
Maestro Stefan Soltesz led a brilliant performance of the Münchner Philharmoniker, the Philharmonia Chor Wien and the Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe.
The Himmelmann Production
“Mefistofele” is an opera that is filled with absorbing choruses and fine arias and duets. Yet, it has never gained the popularity achieved by French composer Charles Gounod’s “Faust”, because its episodic nature lacks the dramatic narrative found in the French work.
Boito’s work is more faithful to the Goethe’s original drama Faust than the Faust operas of Berlioz and Gounod [for my essay on the evolution of these “other” Faust operas see Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Paris.]
The successful productions of “Mefistofele” (and I regard Himmelmann’s effort as a success) add elements of razzle-dazzle to complement the engaging music. One particularly effective innovation in Himmelmann’s production is the ingenious costuming of the choristers, whose sweeping choral anthems are such an important element of the piece.
[Below: a hymn to the celestial host; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
The opera begins effectively. The chorus is heard and not seen, but there are long brilliantly-illuminated tinsel strips that curtain the stage. The play of colors, as if we are in an aurora borealis, suggest that we have ascended a celestial plane.
In time, the chorus, dressed in an array of costumes of pop culture celebrities (all deceased) and fictional characters steps forward to sing a hymn of praise to the celestial hosts.
Eventually, Schrott as Mefistofele comes from behind and steps in front of the chorus.
Tongue-in-cheek the suggestion is made that some of the best known 20th century celebrities – Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Amy Winehouse, Anita Ekberg, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr and many more – as well as the fictional characters, such as Eliza Doolittle and Mary Poppins – had some supernatural promotion in their early careers.
The choristers have several costume changes during the evening, including appearing as masked villagers dressed for a kermesse or a carnival.
[Below: Doctor Faust (Charles Castronovo, center, seated) observes the festivities of the villagers around him; edited image, based on a Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
The production’s centerpiece is the representation of a large movable skull, whose sockets provide platforms on which various characters might stand or sit.
The skull is designed to be a screen on which video projections can be displayed and which can be lit for various effects. Bernd Purkrabek designed the lighting and Martin Eidenberger the video.
[Below: Faust (Charles Castronovo) contemplates the meaning of life and knowledge; edited image, based on a Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
The scheduling of two of the three scheduled “Mefistofele” performances took place during Whitsuntide, a religious period associated with Christian Pentecost. The second performance took place on Whitsun Monday, which is a German holiday.
The Whitsun weekend also (reportedly) is historically associated with practitioners of the Dark Arts, and has an equivalence in that Dark Arts lore with Walpurgisnacht, when devil worshipers are summoned by Satan. (Both the Gounod and Boito operas have a Walpurgisnacht scene.)
The skull (as one would expect) plays a prominent part in Himmelmann’s production of the Walpurgis Night scene, in which the Schrott’s Mefistofele stands in its eye socket as the skull is bathed in royal purple.
[Below: Mefistofele (Erwin Schrott, standing in skull’s left eye socket, summons his minions; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]
The audience reaction to each of Himmelmann’s innovations was enthusiastic with tumultuous ovations at opera’s end.
The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden production was a very successful presentation of a work that needs great singers and spectacular production concepts.
I enthusiastically recommend the production and cast. I suggest that it be considered for presentation in other operatic venues in the future.