Second Tier Siepi
That was my main take-away from the Metropolitan Opera’s first Saturday radio broadcast of the season, on December 1, 2018, of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. The cast included bass-baritone Christian Van Horn in the title role, tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust, soprano Angela Meade as Margherita, soprano Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, mezzo Theodora Hanslowe as Marta, and tenor Raul Melo as Wagner. The work was conducted by Joseph Colaneri. The production was the handiwork of Robert Carsen, and the revival staged by Paula Suozzi, with sets and costumes by Michael Levine, lighting by Duane Schuler, and choreography by Alphonse Poulin.
Calling someone, anyone, “second tier” may or may not be considered an insult in some quarters. I certainly do not mean it as an insult, but as a half-hearted compliment. The reason I included the late, great Italian basso Cesare Siepi’s name in the subtitle to this review is my way of paying homage to an incredible artist, one whose longevity as a vocalist and star performer will forever be remembered by records buffs and fans of beautiful singing. He was often associated with this opera, and with good reason.
Siepi had a long and storied career at the Met, starting with his surprise debut in 1950, as King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the inaugural Rudolf Bing season. Just to show you how stellar that occasion happened to be, Siepi was surrounded by such renowned artists as Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, American baritone Robert Merrill, debuting Argentine soprano Delia Rigal, and Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. The original Philip was to have been Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, no slouch as far as dramatic performances were concerned. But due to visa problems with the U.S. State Department (this was at the height of the Cold War), Christoff was unable to obtain entry. Hands down, his loss was Siepi’s gain!
From there, Siepi took up the mantle of lead singer (he was still in his 20s), singing in a variety of roles from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, to, in his later career, Gurnemanz in Wagner’s Parsifal — quite an array of characterizations for a citizen of Milan. Siepi also appeared on Broadway in two unsuccessful musicals, Bravo Giovanni in 1962 and Carmelina in 1979. Siepi would never become the idol of millions in the manner of fellow Italian Ezio Pinza. But one could always depend on him to give 100 percent of himself each and every time he took the stage.
One of Siepi’s best known stage assumptions, one he lamentably never got to perform in his nearly 25 seasons with the Met, was as the titular Devil in Mefistofele. He did make quite a splash in Faust, the Gounod version of the story, as a mellifluously toned, French-speaking Méphistophélès — more gentleman and cavalier than leering demon.
Ah, but the true test of a basso cantante is his ability to adapt the voice to the demands of the part. In this Siepi was supreme. He excelled in the acting department as well. One can imagine his prancing about half-naked on the stage, roaring up a storm and gesticulating wildly in the Prologue and Epilogue to Boito’s fantastic epic (see any of my previous posts, “Ecco il Mondo” — The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, concerning the genesis of Mefistofele). His Decca/London complete recording of the piece, under the baton of veteran conductor Tullio Serafin, with fellow Met colleagues Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, is a must-have classic, despite the boxy sound.
Siepi would be a hard act to follow even in the best of circumstances. That the 40-year-old American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, a Long Island native and 2018 recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, was engaged to recreate the role of Mefistofele in a revival of the campy Robert Carsen production (originally staged at San Francisco and revived there in 2013 with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov, along with tenor Ramón Vargas and soprano Patricia Racette), spoke volumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s trust in his abilities.
I’m not convinced that their faith was completely misplaced, mind you, but it does take a special kind of artist to pull off a flashy part such as this, especially one in which Old Scratch is adorned in flame-red coattails and slicked-back red hair and matching beard. From the publicity and stage photographs, however, Van Horn possesses the beefy build of a body-builder, with biceps to die for. That’s great if he were playing, say, Hercules or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Mefistofele? I look at it as casting overkill. Surely, Satan can get by without perfectly-formed pectorals. Still, I’m willing to give any singer their due, as long as they deliver the goods.
In that respect, Van Horn’s sound is more lyrical than cavernous. And, yes, he, too, is of the “basso cantante school” of singing, with a voice reminiscent of maestro Siepi’s. While Siepi was the most musical of creatures, but still capable (when called upon) of transmitting that sense of evil incarnate through purely vocal means, Van Horn hardly suggested the innate power and sweep implicit in Boito’s score. For instance, the Prologue went by with no mishaps, yet that flash of inspiration — the feeling that Mefistofele is the combative protagonist in this episodic retelling of the Faust legend — was missing from Van Horn’s portrayal.
The introductory air, “Ave, Signor!” (“Hail, Lord of Heaven”), was fine but no more, a perfunctory reading at best. And his later “Son lo Spirito che nega” (“I am the Spirit that denies”) went by the boards; it was over in a flash to little effect. Where were those bone-chilling “No’s” that frighten the very bejesus out of us? Those piercing whistle blasts (called for in the scoring and in the stage directions), so integral to the part, were weak and short-lasting as well. Too, Van Horn lacked the inky blackness, the plumbing of the bottomless depths that only the best bassos (among them Tancredi Pasero, Nazzareno de Angelis, Giulio Neri, as well as the aforementioned Pinza, Siepi, and Christoff; and, in our own time, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, and Ferruccio Furlanetto) could bring to His Satanic Majesty. I wonder what the Met’s own Štefan Kocán, who has sung Mefistofele elsewhere in Europe, could have done with this part….
Audiences want to be scared out of their wits. That’s what devils do. We know they won’t win in the end, but it’s fun to think that they can. Mr. Christian went on to spew forth more bile and relish for one of the sulfur and brimstone sections of the opera, i.e. the Witches’ Sabbath in scene ii of Act II. Such displays gave him the heft and weight (and the benefit of the doubt) he had so far lacked. Most importantly, they may have placed Van Horn on the map as a singer on the rise. There’s still time, of course, for that to happen; and given more experience and (ahem) exposure in this role and others, Van Horn should continue to develop his skills even further. He’ll make one hell of a devil, that’s for sure.
“Come to Me, Faust!”
After 20 years of not hearing this opera on the Met Opera broadcasts (I was still living and working in Brazil at the time), it was great to hear this splendid score once more. Without top-of-the-line, first-rate singers, however, reviving Mefistofele can be a chore to plow through. We were lucky in that department.
Tenor Michael Fabiano’s vocal impersonation of the late Franco Corelli showed continued improvement as Faust. Fabiano phrases impeccably and demonstrates more care for note values (and noticeably less slurring of words) than Corelli did in his prime. Yet, the voice is still young (Michael is only 34), and the spinto mannerisms (he strained a bit at key moments) are still in their formative stage. To his credit, he forsakes the lachrymose quality that some tenors in this repertoire (I’m thinking of Beniamino Gigli here) have been all-too-prone to display in the past. More softness would have been welcome, especially as the older Faust. But his was as generously proportioned a portrayal as we are likely to get.
I’ve mentioned before in these pages how Aureliano Pertile, an outstanding Italian tenor from a bygone era and one of Toscanini’s favorites, would “age” his voice perceptibly on record to give the impression of infirmity and decrepitude vis-à-vis the bass’s more agile accomplishments. Michael could take a lesson or two from Pertile’s way with the part. And speaking of the Devil, Van Horn made little of the Act II Garden Scene opposite Theodora Hanslowe’s droll Marta, which in the hands of a Treigle or a Ramey would have brought much-needed levity to a work that can seem ponderous to listeners.
As the opera progressed, Fabiano gained confidence and flexibility in the latter parts of the performance. He did not take the optional high C in his lively Act I duet with Satan (“Fin da stanotte nell’orgie ghiotte” – “From this night on in the orgies to come”). Nevertheless, things started to come together at this point, with both Michael and Van Horn giving it their all in the Brocken Scene, and Van Horn’s blasting of the airwaves with his powerful rendition of “Ecco il Mondo” (“Behold the World”). The only disappointment was in his handling of the all-purpose globe in the Devil’s hands: in this production, it’s a big balloon. The directions call for a glass or some sort of breakable object to splinter into a million pieces upon his throwing it to the ground. Here, there was no such smashing sound, which deprived the music of its climax.
As Margherita, the opera’s put upon heroine, Angela Meade displayed a purity of voice and acting means in the more emotional aspects of this role that is hard to find today. Both Acts II and III were made more pleasurable by her presence. It did wonders for Fabiano, too, who sounded more comfortable as the young and overwrought gentleman Faust (in his guise as Enrico, a young student) than as the elderly philosopher.
Meade, too, laid bare her character’s soul in Margherita’s pathetic opening aria, “L’altra notte in fondo all’ mare” (“Last night, at the bottom of the sea”), in the Prison Scene, the equivalent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Gretchen-Faust section from the German author’s epic poem. This is the most heart-wrenching music that Boito ever composed, with its baleful woodwind and string introduction. Meade delivered the aria with indescribable pathos and control. The concluding section, “Spunta l’aurora” (“Dawn is rising”), is a paean to the coming verismo movement; it was written more than 20 years before Mascagni or Leoncavallo would bring that short-lived genre to musical life.
Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy (Elena in the opera) was fully up to the dramatic challenges of her recitation concerning the fall of that ancient city. Helen is a small role, but when done well can send sparks throughout the opera house. When the work was new, the same soprano who took on Margherita would also sing Helen. Nowadays, two different singers are employed, and understandably so, since Helen is a somewhat “heavier” role dramatically. One always gets the feeling, upon hearing this portion of the opera, that Boito cut too many corners in order to keep things moving, thus leaving this sequence with an air of incompleteness and haste.
Not for nothing is Mefistofele known as a choral opera, and memorably so. In fact, in nearly every scene the chorus’ presence is felt as well as seen and heard (even offstage). Ira Siff, the Met’s Saturday radio commentator, alongside broadcast host Mary Jo Heath, agreed that the Met Opera Chorus puts in a “virtuosic” performance in this piece. He’s right on the money! The hellish Witches’ Sabbath sequence, as noted above, is a terrific illustration of this conception of the opera as kaleidoscopic in scope.
Along those same lines, there are few world-class orchestras capable of delivering the solidity and nuance required of this and other repertory items as only the Met Opera Orchestra can bring. Maestro Joseph Colaneri held things together quite well, refusing to let the sometimes raucous portions of Boito’s score (“Tiddy-fol-lol,” as Bernard Shaw would describe it) get out of hand; or to let Robert Carsen’s circus-like ambience dominate the proceedings.
The Epilogue is supposed to crown the whole affair off. Well…. About that….. Something was definitely lacking, possibly that vital spark, that flicker of light that gives life to a worthy subject. What’s with that tinny trumpet sound instead of the usual fanfare? There’s supposed to be a brass ensemble present to announce the coming of the Heavenly Host. Whatever! Although there was much applause at the opera’s conclusion, as a veteran of many — and I do mean MANY — productions of Mefistofele (including live recordings and YouTube extracts), I’ve had a much better sense of this work’s magnitude back at the good ole New York City Opera in its historic heyday than at the Met.
Back then, the reigning Devil was Ramey. He lit up the stage as few Lucifers could. Christian Van Horn has a long operatic trek ahead of him if he is to reach that place where no bass has gone before. A good effort, I might add, but not the roof-raising one we have longed for. I’m sure there will be other times when Boito’s Devil comes a-calling. And when he does, you can be sure I’ll be there listening.
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes