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The Devil Doesn't Get His Due

by Joel Kasow

PARIS - Mefistofele has always suffered from bad press, yet it remains a unique experience when a great conductor and great singers come together with unity of purpose. I have experienced the work in the theater where Antonino Votto, a supreme hack, couldn't make the piece come to life despite a cast which included Boris Christoff, Ilva Ligabue, Carlo Bergonzi and an unlikely Christa Ludwig as Helen of Troy.

Here it is a dynamic Riccardo Muti who is let down by his cast, presumably all his choices as the La Scala origins of the recording would lead us to conclude. Muti is now far more willing to relax into the music than he used to be, but Vincenzo La Scola's unpleasant sounds and Michèle Crider's pronounced vibrato and lack of individuality in both the female roles are major handicaps.

Samuel Ramey in the title role gives us the benefit of his personality, with better vocal equipment than Norman Treigle on an old EMI recording with Domingo and Caballé, but his is hardly the lush voice which used to be standard for the role.

Even though there is a precedent set by the composer (ignored until recently) to have one soprano for both roles, their characteristics are so different that - expensive as it may be for an opera house or recording company - two singers would normally be a better choice. So we are left with Muti and the La Scala forces on a good night, despite a few moments where things go astray, which is not enough to save a barnstormer of an opera.

Mefistofele, Samuel Ramey; Faust, Vincenzo La Scola; Margharita/Elena, Michèle Crider; Marta/Pantalis, Eleonora Jankovic; Wagner/Nereo, Ernesto Gavazzi.
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala.
Riccardo Muti, conductor.

Recorded live at La Scala on 3, 5 and 8 March 1995. RCA 09026 68284 2 (2cds)

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