Monday 25 March 2019

The road not taken: Boito's Mefistofele makes a rare London appearance with Chelsea Opera Group in terrific form

Boito: Mefistofele - Vazgen Gazaryan - Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito: Mefistofele - Vazgen Gazaryan
Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito Mefistofele; Vazgen Gazaryan, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Pablo Bemsch, Chelsea Opera Group, Matthew Scott Rogers; Queen Elizabeth Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A rare opportunity to hear this important work, in a performance full of drama and vivid singing

It is 20 years since an opera company performed Boito's Mefistofele in London (my thanks to colleagues on Twitter for confirming that the Royal Opera gave a concert performance in 1998 and English National Opera staged it in 1999), which seems a long gap for such a significant work in Italian operatic history. Created by a young Turk intent on reforming Italian opera [Boito was 26 when it premiered in 1868], Meftistofele was a failure at first and despite later success its composer is now best known as the librettist of Verdi's final two masterpieces.

So it was grateful thanks to Chelsea Opera Group for giving us the chance to hear Boito's Mefistofele again at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 March 2019 when Matthew Scott Rogers conducted a concert performance with Vazgen Gazaryan as Mefistofele, Pablo Bemsch as Faust, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Margherita and Elena, Angharad Lyddon as Marta and Pantalis, and Aaron Godfrey-Mayes as Wagner and Nereo.

Boito: Mefistofele - Elizabeth Llewellyn - Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito: Mefistofele - Elizabeth Llewellyn
Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito's libretto attempts to do some sort of justice to the protean nature of Goethe's original, so that instead of concentrating on the story of Faust and Marguerite, as did Gounod and his librettists, here we have a prologue in Heaven, episodes of a witches Sabbath and Helen of Troy, in addition to Faust and Margherita.

The opera was given in Boito's revised 1881 version which trimmed it in length, in the original, far too long, 1868 version there was an additional episode at the court of the Emperor. The result is to make various pieces of the work seems somewhat disparate, and perhaps the work does not quite succeed. But there are some astonishing moments, particularly the prologue in heaven, which seems to see Boito the composer rather channelling Berlioz. Boito's revisions introduced more set pieces into the work, but you can still detect a wish to convey drama through expressive arioso-like dialogue, though I thought the the grand sing-along finale to the work seemed to resort rather to conventionality.
Armenian-German bass Vazgen Gazaryan sang Mefistofele, and his stage experience in the role showed. He eschewed any sense of the riotous and gave a carefully controlled and rather serious view of the role. He made a rather elegant, debonair yet black-voice demon and was certainly seductive. His account of the Act One aria was nicely bravura without any element of bravura, though it was a shame that he used a whistle rather than whistling himself.

Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn sang the double role of Margherita and Elena, bringing an ideal combination of power and lyrical flexibility to the roles. Her Margherita was beautifully sung with a convincing and touching naivety, yet expansive in the more lyrical moments and with a surprising strength when she denies Faust just before her death. By contrast, Llewellyn's Elena was wonderfully radiant and rightly seductive.

Pablo Bemsch made a wonderfully eloquent and elegant Faust, singing the long role with an untiring sense of line and engagement with the music. His approach made us admire Faust in a way which does not always happen, and Bemsch was at his best in the more quietly lyrical moments. Occasionally,  Boito's rich orchestration seemed to push the role beyond Bemsch's limits as a lyric tenor, but he never strained or seemed to tire. He has quite a narrow focused, lithe sound and kept a beautiful consistency.

The remaining characters are all relatively small roles, Boito's libretto concentrates on the two principals. Aaron Godfrey-Mayes made a definite contribution to the drama as Wagner, and supported ably as Nereo. Angharad Lyddon spurred delightfully with Gazaryan's Mefistofele in Act Two, and blended in a lovely manner with Llewellyn in the Helen of Troy scene.

Unusually for an Italian opera of the period, Boito makes significant use of the chorus giving them challenging music to write, not just in the heavenly prologue, but in the Carnival in Act One and the Witches Sabbath in Act Two. The Chelsea Opera Group Chorus, joined by singers from Opera Alegria and the Highgate Choral Society, threw themselves into the challenge with enthusiasm and commitment, matching the vibrant tones of the orchestra. They were also joined by the Capital Arts Children's Choir whose young singers acquitted themselves with aplomb.

Boito's orchestral writing is perhaps not the most sophisticated, but the orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group certainly made the most of the dramatic writing and throughout conductor Matthew Scott Rogers drew a glorious sense of drama from the players, along with moments of great delicacy. With such large and diverse forces to control (including a significant role for an off-stage band), Scott Rogers made an admirable traffic-policeman, yet also showed his commitment to the score by drawing out the fascinating textures and essential drama of the piece. There were moments, though, when he rather gave the orchestra its head too much, threatening the balance with the soloists. Yes, the climaxes were noisy but they came with a natural sense of culmination of the drama.

Boito's Mefistofele represents the road not taken, in 1868 it was intended to revolutionise Italian opera. This didn't happen, and post-Verdi Italian opera would take a course which, with Verismo and the Giovane Scuola, represented a very different approach to creating opera. We must be grateful for Chelsea Opera Group not only for giving us the opportunity to hear the performance, but casting it with such a strong and balanced cast, and creating such a vividly dramatic performance.

Boito: Mefistofele - Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito: Mefistofele - Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
The company's 2018/19 season continues in June with another rarity, Anton Rubenstein's The Demon (30/6/2019), and its 2019/20 season continues with the theme of important rarities with Verdi's Un giorno di regno (12/10/2019) and Pizzetti's Assissinio nella Cattedrale (Murder in the Cathedral) with Sir John Tomlinson as Thomas Becket (28/3/2020). Full details from the Chelsea Opera Group website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Imaginative debut: Rarities by Lalo and Milhaud on Hee-Young Lim's debut disc of French cello concertos (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Not heard since its 1956 premiere: Eugene Bozza's oratorio Le chant de la mine from Valenciennes (★★★½) - Cd review
  • One last show: Bury Court Opera draws the final curtain, with a terrific account of Britten's The Turn of the Screw (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Almost music theatre: song cycles by Dominick Argento and Robert Schumann from Sarah Connolly at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Emotional soundscapes: the music of young Australian composer Brendon John Warner on his debut album La fonte  - CD review
  • Highly engaging: revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, ENO & Complicité (★★★★½) - opera review
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