THE devil masquerades in many guises during the Opera di Genova's new production of Arrigo Boito's marvelous opera, ``Mefistofele.'' He never appears with a trident or in his traditional red tights, horns, and tail, but he does show up as a plastic surgeon, an actor, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a stage producer, and a pseudo-Superman with an M - not an S - emblazoned on his chest. Without a doubt, this infrequently performed 19th-century opera about Faust needed a new staging. But the question here in Genoa is: Did it need the drastic treatment meted out by English stage director Ken Russell? For weeks before opening night, opera fans and newspapers vigorously debated the question. Tempers flared. Insults were hurled. Headlines closely followed the off-stage drama: ``Conductor Quits,'' ``General Director Resigns,'' ``Artistic Director Asked to Leave.''
All this advance publicity did accomplish one thing: It filled the house on opening night.
But when the curtains finally parted, what was revealed was a disappointment. The audience was exposed to a production that looked alternately like a child's incoherent nightmare and a ridiculous political satire. What the audience saw in sets and costumes had little to do with what they heard in text and music - and the staging interfered so much with the music that the artists were unable to rise above mediocre performances.
We knew we were in for trouble the moment the show started. Two men in green coveralls stood center stage, one holding a goldfish bowl full of water, the other a terra-cotta flower pot. Ah, symbolism! We were soon to discover that we needed to spend as much time trying to solve the riddles of the symbols as we did listening to the music. Scene by scene, Mr. Russell peppered his stage with characters that had nothing to do with the Faust legend: Adam and Eve, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Nazi soldiers, robots, an emergency squad from Chernobyl, actors from the Passion Play (with the character dressed as Jesus doing a disco step when he was not carrying a huge papier-mach'e cross).
Likewise, the settings envisioned by the composer were changed. Scenes such as Heaven, Faust's study, Martha's garden, and a prison cell became a theater, a spaceship, an ordinary kitchen, and Oberammergau. One instance of this disparity between what we saw and what we heard will suffice.
Traditionally, the scene that Boito labeled as ``Margherita's Death'' takes place in a prison cell. (She has poisoned her mother and drowned the child that she has had by Faust.) Quite mad and delirious, she sings an impassioned aria that tells of her sins.
In Russell's production, the scene took place in a kitchen, where a housewife (Margherita) is obviously a ``prisoner'' of washing machine, refrigerator, and blinking TV set. While she sang her touching lament (the high point of the evening as far as musical performance is concerned), she was forced to iron a pair of trousers. Once finished, she knelt in front of her washing machine, from which she extracted her drowned child.
The audience howled at how insensitive this was to the tragic mood of the scene. But worse was to come. The scene was not for anyone with a weak stomach: It became more tasteless and macabre as it progressed, until the audience, riled by this staging of the opera's most poignant moment, booed and hissed uproariously.
It is almost impossible to justly evaluate the production's musical elements. The original conductor, Vladimir Delman, had quit a few days before dress rehearsal to be replaced by Edoardo M"uller. The question remains: With more time could the new conductor have encouraged the orchestra to play more in tune? Could he have gotten the off-stage brass choir to play with more sense of ensemble and a more brilliant quality of tone? Could he have inspired the vocal forces to have more flare and fire?
The Russian bass, Paata Burchuladze has a pleasing, rich bass voice, but his Mefistofele lacked energy. Ottavio Garaventa's tenor voice was missing a full sound on top and warmth and richness throughout. Adriana Morelli, as Margherita, was the only principal able to overcome the obstacles of the production.
The balance of the season at Opera di Genoa looks as though it might be more musically rewarding: Gluck's ``Alceste,'' which opened this month; Rossini's ``Il Turco in Italia,'' playing in March; Janacek's ``The Voyage of Mr. Brouchek to the Moon,'' coupled with Mussorgsky's ``Il Matrimonio,'' in April; Verdi's ``Rigoletto'' in May, and his ``La Traviata'' in June.