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Friday, November 8, 2013

Opera Review: A Deviled Egg

Eric Owens takes on Mefistofele at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stamping out evil: Mephistopheles (left) and Faust on a 60dm West German postage stamp.
© 1979 Deutsches Bundespost.
On Monday night, the Collegiate Chorale opened their 2013 season at Carnegie Hall with a concert performance of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele. This was one of the most anticipated evenings of the fall opera season in New York, and marked the first appearance of baritone Eric Owens in the demanding title role. It was also the first performance of Mefistofele in 13 years--the show was last seen at the Metropolitan Opera in 2000 in Robert Carsen's sturdy production.

Boito's lone completed opera was a disaster at its 1868 premiere. Since then, its 1875 revision has enjoyed a strange existence on the fringes of the standard repertory. The opera is a demanding four-act conflation of Goethe's Faust, filtered through the composer's own ambition to apply Wagner-style reform to Italian opera. Star basses like Fyodor Chaliapin, Norman Triegle and Samuel Ramey made the title role part of their repertory, and this performance marked Mr. Owens' bid to join their ranks.

Mr. Owens shot to fame as Alberich in the Met's ill-fated Robert Lepage staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen. He has a powerful bass, capable of the many facets of the Prince of Darkness. Yet this concert setting found the singer curiously immobile, in a handsome, all-black suit. Perched on a red velvet bar-stool, he looked ill-at-ease. This may have affected his singing, which sounded dry and rough.

Problems started in the Prologue, a kind of concerto for bass and choir  in which the Devil makes his ill-fated bet with God. Instead of unleashing the mix of humor and frustration that makes Mefistofele not the villain, but the hero of this opera, "Ave Signor" came out as curiously anticlimactic.. "Ecco il Mondo" (delivered at the height of the Witches' Sabbath in Act II) was better, though the big moments were again, rough in character. Mr. Owens was better in the lighter moments of the opera--like the garden quartet in Act II and the very funny scene in Act IV where the Christian devil is confounded by the pagan sprites of Greek mythology.

The four acts of the drama (focusing on Faust and his series of failed relationships with the peasant girl Margherita and Helen of Troy) were much better than the Prologue. Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was a bright-toned enthusiastic Faust, although he had to push hard for top notes at the big moments. He was at his best in "Lontano, lontano, lontano", the gorgeous duet between Faust and Margherita and in the electric Act III prison scene. This is a singer with potential as long as he doesn't burn himself out.

Julianna Di Giacomo doubled as Faust's two love interests. Her Margherita was the more interesting of the two She produced sweet, blissful tone in the Act II quartet although the challenging prison scene ensemble  was also impressive, though lacking the last edge of hysteria. She did her best to bring depth and color to the brief role of Helen of Troy, singing of the burning of that city with harrowing power.

With all of its peculiarities, the sprawl and scene-painting of Boito's score came across a little flat in this concert setting. Part of the blame might lie with conductor James Bagwell, who seemed out of his depth in the giant choral sequences that anchor the beginning and end of this opera. Although the Collegiate Chorale singers (supplanted by the Metropolitan Girls Chorus) sang with power and enthusiasm, the famous heavenly prologue lacked grandeur, balance and dramatic drive. Mr. Bagwell also had problems with balance between chorus and orchestra, as singers and instruments fought for dominance.

The Epilogue of Mefistofele brings back the alarums and choral pomp of the celestial opening, as accompaniment to the final confrontation between Faust and the Devil. Here, Mr. Owens sounded completely outgunned by the heavenly choir. His voice was buried in the choral harmonies, and he did not perform the piercing whistles that are a trademark of this score and mark Old Scratch's last act of defiance. This is a singer in his prime who was having an off night. Hopefully, the next time he takes up the horns and pitchfork, he'll scare the hell out of the audience.

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