Go to the devil

Omer Wellber will conduct the local premiere of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, instead of Massimiliano Stefanelli.

go to devil pic (photo credit: )
go to devil pic
(photo credit: )
The first real chance he had to study the score was on the nearly four-hour train ride from Poznan to Warsaw. That was less than two weeks ago, and on Wednesday Omer Wellber will conduct the local premiere of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, instead of Massimiliano Stefanelli. Wellber, 28, is tackling the opera for the first time. HE laughingly admits that, yes, two weeks to learn the score of a major work is pretty steep, "but whereas all the other composers start from the music, Boito, like Wagner, came to music through theater." This difference helped Wellber to apprehend the score "because Boito is so busy with the text that his music does crazy things that no other opera composer would dare to do. All of Mephisto's (Paata Burchuladze) arias, for instance, are [almost] psychotic because their expression is so extreme in terms of volume, rhythm, orchestration and so forth." Nonetheless, stepping in at such short notice held few terrors for Wellber because the Israel Opera is home turf where he is resident conductor and a veteran of nine operas there. Verdi's Il Trovatore in 2006 starred soprano Michele Crider who is now singing Marguerite in Mefistofele, "and this is the fourth time I've worked with her," says Wellber happily. "We did La Gioconda only last year." This year is starting out well for Wellber. Earlier this month Italy's prestigious Classic Voice magazine voted him Artist of the Year for his production of Verdi's Aida at the Padua Opera and he has since been swamped with offers, including one from Las Scala. He is assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin Stadtoper, proudly mentions a recent Tristan and Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and regards Barenboim very much as his mentor. Wellber is also resident conductor of the Raanana Symphonette, recently returned from Poland. There "it was exhilarating; they played like angels," at a series of concerts featuring Jewish music and Kobi Oshrat's Irena's Song commemorating righteous gentile Irena Sendler. In addition, Wellber is a composer whose works have been commissioned by Musica Nova and the Israel Chamber Orchestra. He plays violin, accordion and piano, and started composing at age 10. He gravitated more towards conducting during graduate studies at the Jerusalem Music Academy, alighting on opera because it's satisfying "on so many levels. I love reading encyclopedias. Opera is like that. Yes, there's music of course, but there's so much else as well and I love the technical aspects of opera." And there's a lot of tech in Mefistofele, including a whole scene set in ancient Greece, that Gounod excluded from his Faust (1859), an opera Boito loftily described as "frivolous." Both works are based on Goethe's great masterpiece in which Faust sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge, great wealth and earthly pleasures, ensnaring the gentle Marguerite along his headlong course. For Boito, Satan is the opera's major presence, evil incarnate, and in his own words, "the embodiment of the eternal NO." Boito (1842-1918) was a poet, novelist and librettist before he was a composer. He wrote the libretti for Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff. In fact, while writing Otello for Verdi he was massively revising Mefistofele. It had premiered in 1868 to riots and howls of "Wagnerism" - Boito admired Wagner - and the police closed it after only two performances. But at its Bologna premiere in 1875, it was an immediate success. It is this version that has remained in the canon ever since. Wellber thinks it succeeded then and now because "it's so far out, so off the wall. I love working with it." Indeed, unfamiliar with the music, Wellber had thought "it would be just another grade B Italian composer, but I was surprised, and I think the audience will be too." Mefistofele appears at The Israeli Opera (19 Shaul Hameleh Blvd., Tel Aviv, (03) 692-7777, israel-opera.co.il) from Jan. 28 through Feb. 10. Tickets range from NIS 175-428.