First the words and then the music or is it the other way round? In Arrigo Boito’s case it was both ways round. Born in 1842 in Padua he became a member of that Italian group of bohemians called ‘la scapigliatura’ (the ‘dishevelled ones’). A colourful character who fought with Garibaldi and conducted a clandestine love-affair with the incomparable actress ‘La Duse’, Boito did have ambitions to become a composer but when his Mefistofele, probably the one of several operas based on the Faust legend closest to Goethe’s epic poem, was first staged it was a resounding flop overtaking even Puccini’s Madama Butterfly’s disastrous première in 1904. No matter, in both cases, thorough revision recalled both works back to the stage and regular performances of Boito’s masterpiece have been given ever since its revision in 1875.
Unlike Puccini, however, Boito is now principally remembered as a librettist and particularly as the one without whose words Verdi would certainly have never composed his last two (and perhaps greatest) operas, Otello and Falstaff. They are truly the greatest achievement of any opera composer in so-called retirement and Boito’s librettos are literary masterpieces as libretti rarely are. Even Ponchielli (La Gioconda) and Lucca’s own Catalani (La Falce) based their successes on Boito’s masterly pen.
After the success of Mefistofele, whose main arias became famous not only through the incomparable Caruso but also through the great Russian Chaliapin’s rendering of them, Boito toyed with the idea of another opera, Nerone. Unfinished like Turandot and, like Turandot, premièred in the twenties by Toscanini it never even faintly achieved success and is largely regarded as a curiosity today.
So for Boito ‘le parole’ have definitely come before’ la musica,’ except in the case of his Mefistofele written as a riposte to the superficial frivolities he considered endemic in Gounod’s version of the primeval legend.
That why I’m looking forwards to attending Lucca’s Teatro Del Giglio’s performance of Mefistofele this April 9th (Saturday at 8.30 pm) or 10th (Sunday at 4.00 pm). It’s a new production with the collaboration of Pisa’s Teatro Verdi and the Teatro Sociale di Rovigo.
I’ve just returned from the Sunday matinee of Mefistofele which began at 4 pm on a very sunny Lucca afternoon and I’m so glad I sacrificed a little of the sun to immerse myself into an opera I should have known better and would have loved much earlier in life. In short, Mefistofele was a revelation! From the prologue through the four acts to the epilogue there wasn’t a dull movement and every emotion was wrung from the astonishing music, so different from the standard melodrama of those times.
This was the main cast list:
Happily the scenery and production was every bit as fine as the music. With the incredibly clever use of screens and light choreography Boito’s opera moved dynamically from the opening Chorus Mysticus to its redemptive end. The use of stellar images, folding curtains of colours – a light show which in former days would have been described as psychedelic and fully worthy of the Pink Floyd itself – conjured up the origin of the universe and, indeed, of good and the evil personified in Mefistofele himself, the real hero (or anti-hero?) of the evening, brilliantly sung with profound bass resonance by Rubèn Amoretti.
Faust’s pact with the quasi-Miltonic figure was sealed in act one (with a highly evocative screen projection of a characteristic Palatinate village – thankfully no egotistic production liberties were taken – unlike London’s recently booed ‘Lucia di Lammermoor – and the scene was firmly set around the sixteenth century). Tenor Gabriele Mangione as Faust was rather good (although he missed a cue in one instance). The pact had the proviso that if Faust uttered ‘arrestati, sei bello!’ (‘Stop you’re beautiful’) at the oncoming moment of his death he would be saved from Mefistofele’s bargain of absolute power in exchange for his soul and escape eternal damnation.
The second act, in a screen-projected idyllic rural Arcadia, is where Faust falls in love with Margherita. It seems to me that with the sophisticated technology of 3-D screen projection and the realisation of virtual scenery the costs of settings could be drastically cut in future productions (although clearly scenery management would have to be fully conversant with the latest technology in this regard!).
Act three provided some of the finest and most cantabile music that Boito ever composed. I could hardly believe that publisher Ricordi had told Boito than he should continue to produce libretti but give up trying to write operas, for this music was exquisite. The moment when Margherita realises that, as a result of an evil potion (a hard drug we would call it today) she had actually killed her mother and drowned her baby was almost too much to bear with her aria (‘l’altra notte in fondo al mar’) where she describes how she would like her murdered mother’s grave to be dug near to her and her murdered baby buried with her on her breast.
Here’s the inimitable Maria Callas singing that wrenching aria:
Elisabetta Farris was absolutely top-class as a soprano in this role singing with heartfelt expression and a very clear high register. The scene where Margherita realises she has murdered her two most loved beings during a raptus caused by the universe’s most evil agent for the devil himself, Mefistofele, must surely be one of the most harrowing moments in all opera!
The two ‘Notti di sabba’ (Witches’ Sabbath nights), one set in a Celtic bare-mountain-like scenario (Prato Fiorito?), the other in a sublime Hellenistic environment where Faust spends a night of delirious love with Helen of Troy were quite gripping and showed Boito’s mastery of orchestration and chorus writing to perfection.
The epilogue, presenting the death of Faust, returned to the cosmicity of the prologue and rounded off an opera which had me thinking not only about its wonderful music but also regarding the philosophical questions it raised, enshrined in Goethe’s great poem, such as the relationship between heaven and earth, the duality inherent in human existence, the ideal and the real, light and shade, angelic creation or damnable worm.
I struggled a little to find a meaning to Faust’s words which saved him: ‘Stop. You’re beautiful’ and felt it could have a different but equivalent meaning for anyone present. For me it meant a pantheistic love of the world. Today was such a beautiful day and the afternoon scootering down the Serchio valley to the Giglio opera house had me stop to look at the beauty of the flowering trees and the burgeoning energy of spring’s rebirth among the Apuan Alps. Yes, planet earth you’re really beautiful and (so far) unique! Let’s just stop and look and admire at and wallow in your beauty.
If one loves the Earth then one truly loves Creation itself and one will nurture that Creation. In turn, in appreciating and caring for it, Creation will forgive and, above all, forgive one’s own existence with all the life faults one has made in the world in terms of relationships with other people, ideas, and ultimately with oneself. This, surely, is the path towards understanding the true nature of Redemption which is what practising atheist Boito’s Mefistofele is all about.
It is a great pity that only the libretto remains of Arrigo Boito’s first version. He did tone down a few things in his second version to bring it to a more acceptable level with even Italy’s nineteenth century avant-garde ‘la scapigliatura’. Yet this second, the only version we know, is so brim-full of gorgeous music from vast cosmic choruses to intimate ariosi to extraordinary scene changes that for once I would disagree with Ricordi’s discouragement of Boito as a composer.
True, without creating Mefistofele Boito may not come up with the idea of inserting that astonishing creed of Iago’s – ‘Credo in un Dio Crudel’ – in Verdi’s Otello but he might have gone on to become a truly Italian equivalent of Wagner. Boito’s libretti are certainly written in a finer literary style than Wagner (excepting the Teuton’s Flying Dutchman) and his music shows a wide knowledge of what was happening north of the Alps, especially with regard to Wagnerian influence through the French school (Massenet in particular, who was to be later also an influence on Puccini).
The production of Mefistofele was certainly one of the finest I have ever seen at the Giglio and, for once the limited orchestral space was an advantage as the trumpets and drums were allowed to sound triumphantly from their positions in the boxes nearest the stage instead of merely looking odd there. All stops were pulled out in this production and a special mention must be made of the chorus and, particularly, the children’s section which sang their cherubic parts angelically.
I do hope that Boito’s gripping music and the equally memorable production by Enrico Stinchelli will have a DVD available for those mortals unfortunate enough to have missed this very special Italian opera…
The Giglio Theatre’s Press office has been kind enough to send me this morning these photographs of Sunday’s Mefistofele as clearly, no photography is allowed during the actual performance. Thankyou!
(all these photographs courtesy of Massimo d’Amato. Grazie!)
To summarize: the main members of the cast were as follows:
MEFISTOFELE Ruben Amoretti
FAUST Gabriele Mangione
MARGHERITA Elisabetta Farris
ELENA Alice Molinari
MARTA Sandra Buongrazio
NEREO Sergio Dos Santos
PANTALIS Moonjin Kim
WAGNER Sergio Dos Santos
The Conductor was Francesco Pasqualetti with the Orchestra della Toscana and production was by Enrico Stinchelli..
I was so glad to be there for from Monteverdi, through to Gluck, Mozart, Berlioz, Gounod and Boito the intricacies of doing deals with the underworld have never ceased to fascinate me and Boito’s music remains absolutely gripping and passionate, especially as far as Margherita is concerned!
Information and booking of further events are available at Teatro Del Giglio Tel. 0583 465320 or Email at: email@example.com