Between Heaven and Hell, choral angels triumph at San Francisco Opera opening

Marry a Broadway spectacular with a great Italian opera and the result is the San Francisco Opera's production of Arrigo Boito's 1868 “Mefistofele.”

It was all opera can be, opening the company's 91st season Friday with a grand, memorable hit between the usual fundraising parties and fashion parade.

This revival of the humongous Robert Carsen-Michael Levine production features cleaned and spiffed-up sets and costumes as the background to Boito's soaring melodies and gripping rhythms.

In the Prologue of the story of the struggle over Faust's soul, Heaven itself opens up, as Ian Robertson's mighty Opera Chorus — 90 strong, plus the cherubim of 30 children choristers — first whisper from the distance, then shake the rafters in the cavernous 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House, advancing toward the audience in a phalanx of crowned, masked angels.

With a certain amount of veracity, Levine's set for Heaven is an opera house, angels sitting in the boxes across from the hall's real boxes, occupied by U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other illustrious opera lovers.

From the Prologue in Heaven to a medieval carnival on Easter Sunday, to a Witches Sabbath, to Helen of Troy's Greece, and concluding with Faust's sudden and undeserved escape from Hell, “Mefistofele” is an extravagant experience for the eyes, ears and heart. Through many major, difficult scene changes, and a somewhat excessive uncut 3½-hour run, Laurie Feldman's direction of the revival went smoothly.

The score is full of beautiful arias and mighty choral numbers from Boito, Verdi's best librettist (“Otello,” “Falstaff”), who left only one complete opera behind.

Above all, it's a choral opera, virtually an oratorio, and Robertson's Opera Chorus sang their collective heart out. The “Robertson sound,” well-remembered from 1989 and 1994 performances of this production, was better than ever, even overwhelming at times. The chorus also benefitted from singing under the baton of music director Nicola Luisotti, a former chorus master himself.

Making his role debut as Mefistofele, Ildar Abdrazakov, the bass-baritone from Bashkortostan, filled the house with a muscular, big, well-projected voice. As Faust, Ramon Vargas sang with increasing confidence as the evening went on.

Patricia Racette's heart-wrenching performance in Margherita's death scene is both a vocal and theatrical coup. Singing as the wronged country girl, the tragic victim and the glamorous Helen of Troy, Racette is always believable and her portrayals pitch-perfect.

This is Opera with a capital O, well deserving of its standing-O reception.

IF YOU GO

'Mefistofele'

Presented by the San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 20 and Sept. 24; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17 and Oct. 2; 2 p.m. Sept. 29

Tickets: $23 to $385; standing-room only $10

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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