Review: The devil you don't know

Opera: Mefistofele Barbican

Arrigo Boito's only opera begins with a delicious conceit. Mefistofele gatecrashes Heaven to address, not "chat" with, the "Eternal Father". To the strains of a sour little scherzando (bassoons curdling nicely with piccolo) he bemoans the fact that collecting souls has become so easy as to be no longer worth the effort. The heavenly hosts are all ears. He is at once the centre of attraction, the master of ceremonies, even here in "the nebulous regions of space". Well, the opera does bear his name and not Faust's, so Goethe can just go hang. But then we hear it - an overripe peach of a tune, the forerunner of Mascagni's "Easter Hymn", and as voices (and offstage brass) are raised as one to the Deity, sopranos reaching beyond the firmament with their cries of Ave! ("Hail!"), it is clear that the Devil has his work cut out, that his moment of glory has come and gone, that we can safely be thinking, if not actually saying, "get thee behind me ..."

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea