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.

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