Review: The devil you don't know
Opera: Mefistofele Barbican
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Monday 16 March 1998
But is the best of Boito behind us? Is this innovative Prologue the very best of Mefistofele? Actually, no. Idiosyncratic, ill-balanced, quirky, kitsch and occasionally moribund it might be, but as this thrilling concert performance under Bernard Haitink proved, there is life in the old dog yet. Believe in its idiosyncrasies, play up to them, empower them, and the piece ultimately delivers - in spades. In strong hands, like Haitink's, it takes shape. The counterbalancing of acts two and three, the garden and prison scenes, suddenly makes perfect sense (not to say symmetry), the former restless, even impatient - Faust and Mefistofele in breathless pursuit of the elusive fruits of love - the latter a dream of repose, the lovers' voices clinging for dear life to the unchanging harmony of their haunting duet "Lontano, lontano". Now this is special. As is the juicy quintet, duet and chorus of act four. By then it's clear that the devil you know has surrendered all the best tunes.
And the devil we all know is Samuel Ramey - as dapper as you like in black suit, red turtle neck, red handkerchief and red socks. He was "on stage" throughout, twirling that imaginary cloak, shaking his fist at the Almighty, each sonorous phrase dispatched on a sneer with a curl of the upper lip. This role is a party piece for him in every respect. And in Richard Margison's Faust he had more than found his match. Here is a voice growing in distinction and girth, an Otello in the making. The big notes never fail him: Margison can clinch top Cs as readily as ill- advised pacts with you know who. His Margherita was Nelly Miricioiu, a singer whose talents have never quite found the international recognition they deserve. There's still time. The voice may be past its absolute best, but she has a shining top and great mobility and sings with such heart and belief that technical shortcomings almost cease to be relevant.
But let's hear it for the real star of this show - the chorus. In various guises they rampage through the action with mouthfuls of capricious consonants at the ready. The Royal Opera Chorus did us proud. In the closing moments of sweet and sonorous concord, they were simply tremendous. Gustav Mahler picked up a pointer or two from these final pages. The heavens wouldn't open like this again until the advent of his Second Symphony. There's a repeat performance tonight. Go.
Royal Opera at the Barbican, 7pm tonight.
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