Tullio Serafin

Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele

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There has been no lack of recordings of Mefistofele, but the participation of three of the leading singers of the mid-twentieth century, baritone Cesare Siepi, tenor Mario del Monaco, and soprano Renata Tebaldi, make this reissue of Decca's 1958 recording a welcome addition to the catalog. Boito's score is full of attractive music and several strong dramatic characterizations. In general, his depictions of normal human relations are more successful than his grand evocations of the supernatural or celestial, as in the Witches' Sabbath, which doesn't sound the least bit orgiastic (unless a fugue fits your idea of sexual frenzy), or in the "Prelude in Heaven." Mefistofele is on the whole a remarkable first opera, but it doesn't show the consistent assurance of a professional composer. One wonders what Boito might have accomplished if he had gotten on with his life and honed his craft with a number of forays into operatic composition rather than spending almost 40 years dithering over Nerone, which he never managed to complete.

Tullio Serafin leads the Orchestra and Choirs of St. Cecilia Academy of Rome in performances that are mostly strong. Oddly, the massive "Prologue in Heaven," scored for multiple choirs and children's choir, and grandly orchestrated, comes across as somewhat underpowered here, but things pick up when the action moves to the streets of medieval Frankfurt for Act I. Siepi is a commanding Mefistofele; although the role suits him ideally vocally, he does not exude the menace one would associate with the Devil, but the fault may be partly Boito's for not giving him more memorably diabolical music. Del Monaco is in especially fine form, singing with a ringing, heroic tone, and his passion after his transformation into a young man is entirely convincing. It also helps that the character of Faust seems to have moved Boito to write his most lyrically charged music. Margarita has a relatively small role in the opera, appearing in only two of the eight scenes, but Tebaldi's voice is sumptuous, and her characterization is pure and poignant. The sound is surprisingly clean and vibrant for a recording of that era.

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