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Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele

A review from Gramophone, April 1994

All the currently available recordings of Mefistofele have at least one major flaw. Oliviero de Fabritiis's sensitive account occupies three CDs and has in the title-role the intelligent and grand-voiced but fundamentally unidiomatic Nicolai Ghiaurov, gruffly and blackly Slavonic in a part that ideally needs an Italianate basso cantante with elegance and relish as well as malignity. Giuseppe Patane's recording is let down by the woeful slackness of his own conducting and by a miscast Eva Marton as Margherita (she also doubles, rather more convincingly, as Helen of Troy in Act 4); Patane's devil, Samuel Ramey, sings with assured ease but little character or care for words. The flaw in this present reissue is the dated recording. There is a decent impression of space in the difficult opening and closing scenes (cancelled out though it soon is by a forward placed, valiant but not especially distinguished chorus), while the orchestra takes on a rather fizzy top whenever it plays loudly. If you can put up with that, the performance has fewer drawbacks than its more recent rivals.

In particular it has in Siepi a real Italian bass with a fine sense of line and a genuine enjoyment of Boito's words. Phrases that are often merely snarled are here truly sung, and Siepi's is the only devil to suggest in the quartet that he is trying to seduce Martha, and that he will very probably succeed. There is incisiveness and grain there, too, to add menace to his suavity. This was a central role in Siepi's repertory, and we're fortunate that he recorded it while he was still at the height of his powers.

From their present-day reputations the other two principals look a bit more problematical: Tebaldi, flawless but chilly, and del Monaco the unsubtle, leather-lunged belter. She, in fact, gives one of the best accounts of "L'altra notte" on record, strongly sung and very touching in its suggestion of grieving guilt; she makes more reliably beautiful sounds than Patane's Marton and is more secure than the otherwise touching but slightly over-parted Mirella Freni in de Fabritiis's recording. Del Monaco sings "Dai campi, dai prati" without the slightest acknowledgement of its poetry, but the splendour of the sound and his instinctive feeling for legato have their own allure, and they give nobility to his finely phrased "Giunto sul passo estremo". The most poetically sung version of this role is Pavarotti's for de Fabritiis; Domingo, with Patane, is unbearably hurried along by his conductor. Cavalli sings Elena strongly, with a dramatic and fearless account of "Notte, cupa, truce", and the secondary parts are characterfully done. The recording doesn't allow Serafin to make a sonic spectacular of the outer scenes, but his care for Boito's often rather old-fashioned cantabile, his quirky rhythms and orchestral colours is scrupulous throughout. If I were buying a Mefistofele, this would be my choice; if I were richer I'd have de Fabritiis as well, on his account and Pavarotti's, but also for the inspired, luxury casting of Montserrat Caballe as Elena.



Mefistofele: Cesare Siepi
Margerita: Renata Tebaldi
Faust: Mario Del Monaco
Elena: Floriana Cavalli
Marta/Pantalis: Lucia Danieli
Wagner/Nereo: Piero de Palma

Chorus and Orchestra of the Santa Cecilia Academy
Tullio Serafin

Decca 440 054-2


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