SAN FRANCISCO -- From the moment the devil climbs out of the pit -- the orchestra pit -- and onto the stage at War Memorial Opera House, one gets the sense that San Francisco Opera's season-opening production of Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele" is going to be on fire. Clever, tragic, silly, tumultuous, a spectacle -- this is opera.
Boito isn't a household name, but he managed to create this single enduring work, which returned Friday to the War Memorial. An adaptation of Goethe's "Faust" legend, it's a musical pageant, indebted to Beethoven, Wagner and Verdi, exotically flavored by Berlioz and Bizet, and pointing toward Puccini and Strauss. For all its influences, it adds up to something epic and unique. Boito, who also wrote the Italian libretto, was only 26 when he conducted its La Scala premiere -- a disaster -- in 1868.
But he revised and slashed his work, and here it is.
This gilded production -- which revives one first presented by San Francisco Opera in 1989 and 1994 -- offers much outstanding singing, beginning with Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the role of that devil, Mefistofele. Red-suited and with red hair, licking blood from a red comb, his voice is massive. Friday, his singing often was piping hot, precise and stinging: "The air I breathe is what men call Sin," he hissed.
He was singing at Faust (tenor Ramón Vargas), the scholar who enters into a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for worldly bliss. Coached by Mefistofele, Faust seduces the peasant maiden Margherita and later time-travels to ancient Greece to charm Helen of Troy, here known as Elena. Don't laugh -- it's opera.
You won't laugh at this performance by soprano Patricia Racette, whose singing was a tour de force. As the young Margherita, her voice was fresh and sailing. As the imprisoned Margherita -- who has poisoned her mother and drowned her baby, born from her Faustian hour of love -- she was crazed, her voice fragile, yet filled with life-force; physical, as in the wrenching aria "L'altra notte in fondo al mare." Then, on to ancient Greece, where Racette (who also sings the role of Elena for most of this run) transformed again, her voice growing dark-hued, exotic, rapturous.
(Racette, who also sang the role of Margherita at War Memorial in 1994, is the night's hero -- and perhaps the new season's, as she will step into the title role of composer Tobias Picker's "Dolores Claiborne," premiering Sept. 18. She is an emergency replacement for mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick.)
Vargas, the cast's other key member, was not so charismatic. A failing of the opera is that scholarly Faust barely needs to be persuaded to join with the devil; he's spineless, an empty suit, and doesn't demonstrably learn much over the course of the tale. In any event, Vargas struggled, his voice hefty, then thin, too often weak in the low range or pinched in the upper. He seemed self-conscious, but at last opened up, becoming freer and more lyric in the final acts.
Conceived in the late '80s by Robert Carsen (and directed here by Laurie Feldman), this "Mefistofele" imagines the universe as a cosmic theater: Earth, Heaven and Hell, all rolled into one.
We see this multistoried theater -- it looks like a 19th-century opera house -- on stage at War Memorial. Imaginative and stunning to behold, Michael Levine's sets and costumes are shaded toward heavenly blues (representing goodness) and flaming reds (representing evil) and break out into a riot of Mardi Gras colors for the Easter Sunday crowd scene.
Over the course of the night, the large chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, at times becomes a legion of angels (their ranks grow as the music escalates in the famous "Prologue in Heaven"), then a flock of copulating witches and warlocks. Friday, it performed splendidly, as did the orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
Final note: Boito is best known as the librettist for Verdi's "Otello" and "Falstaff." The latter, with Bryn Terfel in the title role, opens Oct. 8 at War Memorial.
Presenting "Mefistofele" by Arrigo Boito
Though: Oct. 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $23-$385; 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com