Magazine article The Spectator

Uninhibited Romp

Magazine article The Spectator

Uninhibited Romp

Article excerpt

Higglety Pigglety Pop! Where the Wild Things Are (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

How solemn an opera is Boito's Mephistopheles? The question is posed urgently by Ian Judge's spectacularly brilliant new production at the Coliseum, the first by a professional company in this country for a very long time. Last year it was accorded a concert performance, also superb, at the Barbican under Bernard Haitink, who gave as dissimilar an account of the score from Oliver von Dohnanyi with the ENO as one could imagine. Under Haitink with an international cast the work was passionate and in deadly earnest, partly perhaps because Samuel Ramey, though he specialises in diabolic roles, seems to have no sense of mischief, an indispensable quality in any Mephisto related to Goethe's, as Boito's certainly is. The composer-librettist was amongst the most cultivated of writers of opera, yet somehow his combination of interests and gifts failed to work completely when he was going it alone, while they were inspired and inspiring for Verdi and even for Ponchielli (when shall we see La Gioconda in London?). He could only aim very high - no wonder the Faust legend appealed - but he was unconvinced, and rightly, that he could translate his aspirations into musico-dramatic realities. The disastrous premiere in 1868 at La Scala can have been no help, and it was seven more years before the version we now have was finally knocked into shape.

Where Haitink wrought miracles in imparting to the opera a symphonic structure, Dohnanyi is in the first place concerned to underline the drama, such as it is. Boito, whose music wholly lacks an individual idiom, helps by offering his interpreters a curiously blank score to make something of. And at the Coliseum they work hard and to dazzling effect. For almost the whole of the first part, taking us through the Witches Sabbath, the sardonic elements in the work are underlined by ingenious strokes which convert even the angelic into the infernal, so that we see things very largely from Mephistopheles's perspective. The cherubim who enter in large numbers, under an anachronistic but effective set derived from the Asamkirche in Munich, I take it, are annoyingly cute, as the devil feels, but also have an air of Piero's angels from the `Baptism of Christ' about them, as Boito seems to want to feel. …

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