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Pamela Feinsilber Headshot

Bondage and Leather and San Francisco Opera's Mephistopheles

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I was waiting for my photographer friend Tracy Johnston to meet me at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House for a Sunday-matinee performance of Arrigo Boito's 1875 opera Mephistopheles (Mefistofele). It was a fine, sunny day, and Tracy was going to join me after taking pictures at the Folsom Street Fair. If you've never heard of it, this is an annual, perhaps only-in-San-Francisco celebration. As the organizers described this 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.

Ildar Abdrazakov was devilishly charismatic as the title character, and Ramón Vargas a sweet-voiced Faust, the scholar who bargains away a peaceful afterlife to experience the true nature of this life. The wondrous 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's lucky that Margherita has only two scenes. San Francisco Opera's second offering this season is the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King's 1992 novel, an SFO commission from Tobias Picker. The original lead, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, withdrew from the production in late August, and Racette, who was already in town rehearsing Mephistopheles, learned the new part in time for opening night, September 6. (She also sings Elena, or Helen, in five of eight performances of Boito's work, including tonight's.)

So in addition to her gorgeous, impassioned singing and acting, Racette proved a true hero. How did she do it?? "I'm not exaggerating at all to say that every waking hour has been spent preparing" for Dolores Claiborne, she told Mike Silverman of Associated Press late last month. "The only breaks I've had are my performances of Mephistopheles."

And why did she do it? It's not as if she weren't a well-established star. Racette apprenticed with San Francisco's esteemed Merola Opera Program, debuted with SFO in Verdi's Aida in 1989, and has performed here almost every year since. I last saw her as a heartbreaking Cio-Cio San, with the late Zheng Cao as Suzuki, in Madama Butterfly.

Indeed, Racette is set to perform as Butterfly again in a production here this June. While she's at it, she'll perform in the company premiere of an entirely different kind of opera: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's musical-theater classic Showboat. You might think that sounds almost as much a stretch as the Folsom Street Fair and the opera. But then, we love mixing things up in San Francisco.

Mephistopheles, Oct. 2; Dolores Claiborne, Oct. 4; Showboat, begins June 1, Madama Butterfly, begins June 15, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.864.3330, sfopera.com.