This fascinating opera has had an uneven reputation from day one. Although Boito is better known as the brilliant librettist to Verdi’s last two masterpieces, Falstaff and Otello, he was also a composer of some standing, and Mefistofele was his magnum opus. It is the Faust legend, but done more flamboyantly and with a different dramatic emphasis than Gounod’s.
Boito’s opera is a series of vignettes, with gaps between some scenes that do not always add up to a dramatic whole. In this opera, the character of Margherita is almost a sideshow. The main drama takes place between Mefistofele, Faust and God – as represented by a heavenly host, the chorus. By the final act and epilogue Margherita is long gone, leaving the stage to the three protagonists. It all works up to a wonderfully bombastic and exciting finale. Having seen a fine production of this opera in Vienna, I can attest to the work’s power on stage. Flawed it might be, but it is much more fun than Gounod’s Faust, and more dramatic.
This live recording comes from the opera house in Palermo and is an effective enough performance from a good provincial opera house. The cast is uniformly good and is well conducted by Stefano Ranzani. The chorus quality varies, the females sounding a bit wobbly at times.
Surprisingly, there are 10 recordings of this work currently available. One of the best is from EMI with Norman Triegle, Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé in 1973. There is also a version with Pavarotti and Freni and one from the San Francisco Opera with Samuel Ramey; all superior to this new version.