Mephistopheles in Your Living Room

When I mention to non-aficionado friends that I've been to the opera--most recently, to San Francisco Opera's wondrous Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini, with the dazzling, "once-in-a-generation" soprano Sondra Radvanovsky--they rarely say, "Oh, I don't like opera." More often, it's "Ooh, opera is so expensive." Well, yes and no. There are certainly other ways to see a production than paying for an orchestra seat.

You can buy a cheaper seat or a standing-room ticket; in San Francisco, you can even see a simulcast at the ballpark! Sometimes you can catch an HD-filmed production at a movie house that has good sound, like my little neighborhood theater, the Lark. Occasionally, you can watch a filmed production on TV; for instance, San Francisco public television station KQED recently showed Arrigo Boito's 1875 opera Mephistopheles (Mefistofele), filmed and recorded last fall, when I saw it at the War Memorial Opera House. And now, you can see this production on Blu-Ray and DVD.

If you've never seen an opera, this is an excellent way to begin: stretched out in a comfy chair in your living instead of sitting upright with a hard-back seat in front of you; table with popcorn and beer (or cheese, fresh sourdough, and wine, or whatever) at hand. Plus, you can stand up when it's not intermission.

Mefistofele is San Francisco Opera's fourth DVD/Blu-ray release, after productions of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's Moby-Dick, Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, and the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. I was lucky enough to see all of them.

With Mefistofele, I was waiting for my photographer friend Tracy Johnston to meet me for a Sunday matinee. It was a fine, sunny day, and Tracy was going to join me after taking pictures at the Folsom Street Fair, an annual, perhaps only-in-San-Francisco celebration. As the organizers described last year's event, "Dressed in leather harnesses, or galloping with Edwardian carriages and the most fabulous of horses, or in latex and rubber, or in sequins, beads, and feathers, or swinging suspended on hooks, or dancing in the cage, or with the skimpiest of outfits, or with nothing at all, we came together."

I happened to mention Tracy's plans to someone and laughed, saying, "So she's going to experience the widest range of what San Francisco has to offer today."

The woman arched an eyebrow and said to me, "Have you seen this opera?"

Now that I have, I totally get what she meant. With different costumes, Folsom Street Fairgoers could have populated the opera's ribald town carnival, complete with a frisky Adam and Eve and serpent, in the first act and the wicked Witches Sabbath, with its well-simulated nudity, in the second. They could have, that is, providing they could sing. In what must have been one of its most fun experiences ever, the stellar San Francisco Opera Chorus, led by Ian Robertson, sang and performed as both the colorfully clad townspeople and the witches and warlocks of Walpurgis Night. Masked and costumed in white, they also sang in the angelic choir that bookends this drama about Devil versus God, heaven versus hell. They were simply outstanding.

The terrific Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov was devilishly charismatic as the title character, and Mexico-born tenor Ramón Vargas a sweet-voiced Faust, the scholar who bargains away a peaceful afterlife to experience the true nature of this life. The dynamic soprano Patricia Racette was Margherita, the village girl Faust seduces and destroys; and her solo as, half mad with grief and remorse, she awaits execution for killing her mother and the baby Faust left her with is heart-stopping.

I would have liked Boito, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, to have dropped the tacked-on Act IV, in which Faust, traveling on Mephistopheles' magic cape to classical Greece, meets up with Helen of Troy. This gives him a chance to contrast loving a mortal (a tragedy) with loving a goddess (an illusion), but I would rather he had enlarged a bit Faust's truncated relationship with Margherita. I know, it's opera; but still.

Then again, it was fortunate Margherita has only two scenes. That summer, while Racette and company were rehearsing Mefistophele, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who was set to star in a world premiere based on Stephen King's 1992 novel Dolores Claiborne (an SFO commission from Tobias Picker), had to withdraw from the production. This was in late August, and Racette learned the new part in time for opening night, September 6. As she said at the time, "The only breaks I've had are my performances of Mephistopheles."

That was just one reason Racette received a San Francisco Opera medal--awarded from time to time to great performers, conductors, and others who have been important to the company--last month. This was at the end of a performance of Susannah, composed and with libretto by Carlisle Floyd, in which a Tennessee town's small-mindedness affects a young girl, her brother, and the preacher who ruins all their lives. It's a highly accessible, emotionally engaging, powerful work, and here's hoping SFO brings it back again soon. Not to mention Norma (preferably with Radvanovsky), which pretty much knocked out everyone who saw it.

Meantime, there's Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera and Handel's Partenope this month, followed by Puccini's Tosca and Rossini's Cinderella. And don't forget the DVDs of Mefistophele and the others I mentioned. In fact, Vargas, who is here performing in Un Ballo in Maschera with Dolora Zajick, will be signing DVDs and CDs after the Oct. 19 performance.

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.864.3330,