Lyric Opera

They go to the opera, not to hear music, not even to hear bad music, but merely to see a more or less obscene circus. A few, perhaps, have a further purpose; they desire to assist in that circus, to show themselves in the capacity of fashionables, to enchant the yokelry with their splendor. –H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken was hardly able to mention opera without a sneer, despite all its great music. Opera has changed since he scorned it, but this year’s gala opening night at the Lyric captured some aspects of Mencken’s obscene circus, in the house and onstage. The circus put on by the audience was the expected one: a huge crush of folks gawking at their betters in front of the doors, making it almost impossible for the ordinary opera enthusiast to elbow his way into the lobby, where he then had to push through the champagne-swigging crowd to reach the security of his seat.

Mefistofele, which first saw the light of day in 1868, is the major work of a minor composer, Arrigo Boito. As an operatic composer Boito is a cut above Leo Delibes, but only just. Boito’s true contribution to opera lies in his work as a librettist for the aging Verdi, particularly in his masterpieces Falstaff and Otello. The music in Mefistofele has a few high points, such as the celestial choruses in the prologue and epilogue, but most of it is composed in a workaday Italian set-piece idiom that can’t support the difficult subject of Goethe’s Faust.

In Italian opera houses loud whistling is one of the principal forms of mocking a work that doesn’t meet the crowd’s approval. In this opera Mefistofele whistles to mock God. When Mefistofele premiered, the whistling of Satan was apparently exceeded by that of the crowd. Boito obligingly overhauled it, trimming it by nearly three hours. He had tried to encompass the entirety of Goethe’s magnum opus, unlike Charles Gounod, who simply confined himself to the first part, leaving him with a reasonably theatrical story line that made for satisfying opera–even if it did not do justice to Goethe. But even after Boito made his cuts, his reach still exceeded his grasp; his opera remains dramatically disjointed.

Mefistofele is not really in the repertory in this country and is generally produced either as a novelty to help clear the palates of operagoers or as a star vehicle. Lyric’s production is captained by Samuel Ramey, who’s nearing the peak of his power. He has a commanding stage presence as well as a fabulous voice, and this production gives both full scope. Lyric could probably sell out the house for any star vehicle even if the principals wore burlap bags and never moved–as long as the title role was sung by someone whose voice is in Ramey’s class. But Ramey offers more than his voice; he also dances around and shows off his bare chest.

The other cast members are reasonably strong vocally. Kristjan Johannsson, who plays the never-satisfied Faust, sounded quite good in the first act, but by the third act he was showing signs of vocal exhaustion. His appearance and walk reminded me of Burgess Meredith playing the Penguin in Batman. Faust’s first-act sidekick, Wagner, was nicely sung by Bruce Fowler, who was then sent backstage, where he was forced to remain until his curtain call–the cruel fate the director chose for the lesser principals in this show. Aprile Millo made a sympathetic appearance as Margherita, the artless peasant girl who is seduced and betrayed by the rejuvenated Faust. Her companion Marta was capably sung by Sandra Walker, who suffered the indignity of having to wear one of the least flattering costumes ever seen on the Lyric’s stage.

Beyond the regulation story of the seduction and salvation of Margherita, which is well-known to opera audiences from Gounod, Mefistofele features a second romantic interlude for the restless Faust, when he is whisked off to a tryst with Elena (Helen of Troy). This classical love interest was pleasantly sung by the physically imposing Mary Jane Johnson, whom the Victorians would have called handsome rather than pretty. Elena is supported by two hangers-on, Pantalis and Nereo, who were decently sung by Nancy Maultsby and Patrick Denniston.

Rounding out the vocal side of the music, the Lyric Opera Chorus (in its maiden effort under the direction of new chorus master Donald Palumbo) confidently negotiated Boito’s difficult score and was particularly effective in the celestial sequences. The Lyric Orchestra played well for Bruno Bartoletti, who capably conducted the massed forces of orchestra and chorus.

In addition to the opening-night patron circus, this production features an obscene circus in the most literal sense of the word as part of its first-act staging. Instead of what one might expect of a medieval German elector’s Easter Sunday parade, we get an almost Spanish religious procession, along with a minor lascivious demonstration by a would-be Adam and Eve. Overall the sets and staging are the weak points of the production. It’s not that they’re outrageous or controversial, but that they exhibit the sort of shopworn eclecticism common in major opera houses for the last decade. Though the story of Faust dates from the 16th century, designer Michael Levine (a certified wunderkind, according to the Lyric’s program) and director Robert Carsen seem to have anchored their visual ideas in the 19th century, near the time of Boito. However, to deflect any criticism from those who consider consistency the hobgoblin of small minds, they have leavened it with costume and design elements from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. (Particularly amusing was the very early telescope decorating Faust’s pre-Galileo study.) The two also make use of the old “show within a show” technique, with extra theater boxes of angels watching throughout the performance. At times heaven and hell are also rendered in this theater motif: blue, white, and boring for heaven; red, rough, and decayed for hell. While colorful and arresting, this production is essentially shallow. And with the exception of Ramey’s cavortings, the stage action is predictable and uninspiring.