The best that can be said for some recent Metropolitan Opera productions — “Samson et Dalila” and “Tosca,” I’m looking at you — is that they don’t actively hinder the works being performed. But Robert Carsen’s staging hardly ever stops helping Boito’s “Mefistofele,” which opened on Thursday in its first Met revival in almost 20 years.
Here is a lavishly flawed opera — a lush, static, lengthy musical layer cake — that achieves levity, and even demonic delight, through Mr. Carsen’s interventions. He turns Boito’s sequence of episodes from Goethe’s “Faust” into a louche, lively cross-chronological carnival: part Italian street theater, part bordello, part Baroque theater, part Catholic Mass. If this all doesn’t make “Mefistofele” quite succeed, it does make it dance.
Mr. Carsen’s visual coups — the sets and costumes of the staging, which dates back to a 1988 run in Geneva, are by Michael Levine — match Boito’s soaring music; they’re stunning in their simplicity. A rich red stage curtain rises to reveal a cloud-dotted blue sky. As the chorus chants that poetry must ascend to the heavens, flats depicting an ancient Greek landscape float upward. The devil, violin in hand, climbs to the stage from the orchestra pit on a blood-colored ladder.
That devil, the opera’s title character, is the reason to do the piece, which owes many of its performances over the past few decades to Samuel Ramey, a commanding and sly Mefistofele for whom the Carsen production was mounted. Christian Van Horn’s pectoral muscles are as prominent as Mr. Ramey’s, and his arms maybe even bigger, which goes a long way in a staging with a sexy, frequently shirtless Satan.
Rising — or, should I say, descending — to his first leading role at the Met, Mr. Van Horn is a bass-baritone, not a bass. Like Mr. Ramey, his smooth, powerful, flexible voice has its greatest impact in the baritonal region, rather than the sepulchral depths; his voice doesn’t bloom as it moves downward.
And with both Boito and Mr. Carsen placing a premium on sarcasm and sensuality, Mr. Van Horn wants, perhaps, an extra dash of devil-may-care relish. But that may come: This was, it should be said, his first-ever performance of the role. Long may he reign in hell.
Michael Fabiano’s Faust was, as usual with this tenor, tensely forceful — sometimes exciting, sometimes strained. As Margherita, whom he seduces and abandons, the soprano Angela Meade checked the boxes of dramatic involvement: probing high notes, earthy low ones. But her voice, while penetrating, is not broad — it’s a kind of fine-tipped pen of sound — so she gives the impression of being more poised than impassioned.
As they often do in “Mefistofele,” the choral episodes — the ethereal Prologue and Epilogue and the raucous Witches’ Sabbath — made the strongest impressions, even if those set pieces could have been built more inexorably by Carlo Rizzi, the conductor, who could also drive the sumptuous-sounding orchestra with even more focus.
Through Dec. 1 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.
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