My Old Flames

Devilish strut: Samuel Ramey and Jane Shaulis in Mefistofele at the Met.Photo: Beatriz Schiller

The Mefistofele road show has just rolled into the Metropolitan Opera, a well-traveled production of Arrigo Boito’s uneven but intriguing treatment of Goethe’s Faust. First seen in 1988 in Geneva, director Robert Carsen’s campy spectacle has since gone on to play San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C., and perhaps a few cities I’ve missed, always as a showcase for bass Samuel Ramey in the title role. The Met may not have presented Mefistofele for nearly 75 years, but obviously the opera is no novelty, not even in New York. After all, the City Opera’s much-admired 1969 production has seldom been out of sight for long, and in his younger days Ramey starred in that version as well.

So unless one subscribes to the theory that if it hasn’t happened at the Met it hasn’t happened, this “new” production is already something of a moldy fig. But the audience loved every goofy moment: the Prologue in Heaven staged in a lavishly decorated Baroque Italian opera house (opera is sheer Heaven – get it?); the rejuvenated Faust hooked up to a wire and flopping about like Peter Pan on drugs; Margherita turned into an unwitting brothel attraction; damned souls clad in bloomers and party hats disco-jiving at the witches’ sabbath; Helen of Troy posturing like an old-fashioned opera diva amid piles of classical kitsch. In the middle of it all is the Devil himself, an obnoxious but essentially harmless emcee with a whole wardrobe of red suits, most of them designed to display Ramey’s aging hairy chest, apparently a standing clause in all the bass’s opera contracts. Carsen and his set designer, Michael Levine, clearly decided early on that Mefistofele is such a silly opera that there’s no point in trying to take it seriously.

It was sobering to open the program and see a picture of Feodor Chaliapin, who sang Mefistofele at his Met debut in 1907 and again at the opera’s last performance there in 1925. Considered by many the greatest singing actor of the century, Chaliapin chillingly exudes chaos and evil even in a photograph. Ramey’s candy-cane Devil, on the other hand, seems merely irritating as he mouths the music, rolls over the floor, strikes phony applaud-me poses, and mugs at an audience that doesn’t seem to mind being shortchanged by such a cheesy one-dimensional star turn. It isn’t Richard Leech’s fault that his Faust looks ridiculous during his high-wire act, legs kicking helplessly in midair, but he is responsible for his voice, which has thickened unpleasantly over the years and is now afflicted with a bad wobble. Worse, his singing continues to be monotonously loud and colorless, without a trace of grace, style, or musical shape. Neither singer is much helped by conductor Mark Elder’s eccentric tempos and inability to smooth over the cruder passages of Boito’s spotty score.

The one ray of light in all this is Veronica Villarroel, who seizes every opportunity offered by the dual role of Margherita and Elena and gives the only truly fully rounded performance of the evening. Her rather wiry soprano is not conventionally beautiful, and her intonation may not be always exact – the exquisite and vocally exposed “Lontano” duet with Leech veers dangerously toward atonality. But she fearlessly applies every expressive gesture at her command, from a booming chest register to a respectable trill, and brings true heartfelt emotion to the prison scene, the strongest musical sequence in the opera. Villarroel was so moving, in fact, that her genuineness only made the production around her seem that much cheaper.

My Old Flames