ALBUM TITLE: Boito
PERFORMER: Samuel Ramey, Gabriela Benacková, Dennis O’Neill, Judith Christin, Emily Manhart, Daniel Harper, Douglas Wunsch; San Francisco Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Maurizio Arena; dir. Robert Carsen (San Francisco, 1989)
CATALOGUE NO: 100 414
Boito’s ambitious operatic version of Goethe’s Faust turned the spotlight on to the protagonist’s demonic tempter and companion, providing basses possessing a penchant for devilry with a star part. Samuel Ramey has been Mephistopheles’s leading recent exponent, and in this 1989 San Francisco production grabs the attention from his first note and never relinquishes it. Vocally and dramatically, this is a top-quality portrayal.
Ramey receives honourable assistance from Dennis O’Neill’s eloquently sung Faust, and while she’s arguably a little mature visually for both roles, Gabriela Benažková gives strong accounts of the seduced village maiden Margherita and the Classical siren Helen of Troy. Maurizio Arena is the attentive conductor.
Robert Carsen’s much-travelled production, seen here in one of its earlier manifestations, has given the opera a new lease of life. It certainly presents a vivid show in such lively moments as the Easter Sunday crowds cavorting in a Frankfurt square and the orgiastic Witches’ Sabbath in the Harz mountains, where Ramey’s Mephistopheles conducts his Satanic congregation wearing party hats and underwear in a frenetic fugue. Much of the staging frames the action in a theatre set, which distances it slightly. Boito’s greatest challenge – the prologue set in heaven, with phalanxes of celestial vocalists – is disappointingly realised as a white and gold auditorium with stagey angels. But generally Carsen’s able to weld a diffuse piece into a coherent whole.
It has been well filmed, with some snazzy camerawork, but there are no extras other than a useful booklet article. George Hall