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Group effort makes 'Mefistofele' a crowd-pleaser

Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele" is one of the better bad operas, so a good performance can be a rousing experience. Conductor Jeffrey Rink and about 260 collaborators blasted the work through the roof of Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon, and the audience roared its approval.

Boito was a finer librettist than composer. He supplied the texts for Verdi's "Otello" and "Falstaff" and, of course, for "Mefistofele," which is his adaptation of Goethe's "Faust." Boito's text attempts to incorporate some of the intellectual, philosophical, and mythological dimensions of Goethe's play, and its cosmic sweep. His music isn't quite up to that task. He has some good ideas, but doesn't always know how to develop them (he does know how to repeat them). The orchestration is colorful but not written to support the voice; the vocal lines are often awkward. Melodic inspiration comes and goes, and when all else fails, Boito builds arias out of simple arpeggios or scales.

He does know how to build an overwhelming climax, and parts of the prologue in Heaven and the epilogue are spectacular. There are also a number of vivid theatrical touches, like the sardonic whistling with which Mefisto ends one of his arias. A quartet generates some syncopated excitement (one of the few moments of rhythmic irregularity in the score), and Margherita's mad-scene "L'altra notte" is justifiably famous.

The massed forces were certainly impressive -- the Chorus pro Musica, the official presenter, had one of the major roles as angels, penitents, peasants, witches, and nymphs, and sang its collective heart out, supported by the New England Conservatory Children's Chorus and the Treble Chorus of New England as chanting cherubim. The orchestra really poured it on, too.

Boston regulars took the supporting parts and made the most of them -- tenors Mark Nemeskal and Jason McStoots, and mezzo-sopranos Gale Fuller and Danute Mileika. Fuller was particularly amusing as Martha, who seduces the willing Mefisto, who returned to the stage tucking in his shirt.

Michele Capalbo doubled the roles of Margherita and Helen of Troy, singing idiomatically and passionately in a sizable voice that is exciting up high and down low, somewhat hooty in the middle. As Helen, she shimmered in gold; as the virginal Margherita she wore aubergine, slit to above the knee.

The other two principals came from the Metropolitan Opera. Tenor Allan Glassman proved a resourceful actor, economically depicting Faust in old age and in youth. He has a strong, resilient voice that he maneuvered skillfully through Boito's obstacle course. Bass Raymond Aceto brought vocal firepower, idiomatic diction, and interpretive imagination to Mefistofele, as well as a playful spirit that might be more appropriate to Gounod's "Faust." He sang loud and louder all the time, but that was partly the composer's fault -- the trombones are never far away. Rink, once a "Mefistofele" chorister himself, got off to a tepid start in the prologue championed by Toscanini, but warmed to the task and conducted most of the opera as if his immortal soul depended on it.

Opera by Boito, presented by the Chorus pro Musica
Jeffrey Rink, music director
At: Jordan Hall, Sunday

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