Knox Opera Stages an Epic Production of Boito’s Diabolical Masterpiece, ‘Mefistofele’

In Classical Music by Alan Sherrodleave a COMMENT

For most composers, if the premiere of a new opera—one lasting over five hours—was greeted by catcalls, whistles, boos, and an angry audience exodus, it would probably be a fatal discouragement. Not so for Arrigo Boito and his Mefistofele, an opera based on Goethe’s play about the familiar Faust legend, which suffered just such a catastrophic opening at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in March 1868.

Seven years and several reworkings later, a greatly shortened and revised Mefistofele delighted audiences in Bologna; the opera has since been established in the repertory of the major opera houses of the world. The opera has never been staged in Tennessee, but Knoxville Opera changes that this weekend with two performances of Boito’s masterpiece at the Tennessee Theatre.

Mefistofele, for which Boito wrote both music and libretto, was the composer’s only opera that was performed during his lifetime, with Nerone still incomplete at his death in 1918. Boito’s fame rests mostly with his work for other composers as a librettist, a role he took for Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, among others. As a writer sensitive to the power of the word, Boito sought to remain relatively faithful to Goethe’s Faust. His theme, however, as evidenced by the title, centers on the devil and the conflict of good versus evil, rather than on the character of Faust and the potential for man to reach a higher moral plane.

“Giving Mefistofele a humanity, a humanness, is what makes it so interesting,” says Brian Deedrick, stage director for KO’s production. “For example, his cheekiness towards God, of course, is right there in the libretto. Putting it into a modern context, he likes to play around with the old fart, he likes to mess around with his head. We are giving a reality to Mefistofele that will probably irk some, particularly those waiting for horns to be sprouting out of his head or a glimpse of a long red tail. No, but he is a bit of a dude in some ways.

“Boito’s character of Faust is much more traditionally written. I almost hate to say it—he’s something of a loser. We’re so much more aware of Gounod’s opera Faust and that character. In the Boito, sure, Faust is in the show, but it’s really all about the journey of Mefistofele.”

Knoxville Opera audiences can expect musical forces on a staggering scale in the Tennessee Theatre. Deedrick and music director Brian Salesky are placing the orchestra behind a scrim onstage to enable the orchestra pit and apron to be used as part of the action. The chorus will have over 130 voices, including members of the Knoxville Opera Chorus, the Knoxville Chamber Chorale, Pellissippi State Variations Ensemble, and the Knoxville Opera Youth Choir. Multiple brass choirs are to be positioned throughout the theater for key scenes. In fact, those brass choirs may hold the key to Salesky’s determination to stage the work in Knoxville.

“In 1977, I joined the New York City Opera as an administrative/musical assistant to general director Julius Rudel,” Salesky says. “One of my first assignments was to conduct brass instrumentalists in a hallway outside of the fifth ring of the New York State Theatre for Mefistofele. There were no televisions to watch the conductor and no rehearsals. Years later, after having conducted the various brass choirs throughout the theater and backstage, I graduated to being the cover conductor of the production. I thought it was City Opera’s finest production.”

This production features a number of singers making their Knoxville Opera debuts: bass-baritone Donovan Singletary as Mefistofele; tenor Cody Austin as Faust; Ryan Ford as Wagner; and Allison Deady as Marta. Soprano Julia Lima, last seen with KO in the 2012 production of Die Fledermaus, will sing the role of Margherita. Salesky will conduct the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.


Knoxville Opera performs Boito’s Mefistofele at the Tennessee Theatre (602 S. Gay St.) on Friday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 11, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $21-$99. 

Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.

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