Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele"

I lived in Parma in northern Italy for several years and, late at night, I used to regularly pass the "Conservatorio Arrigo Boito". It always seemed a desolate and wind swept place--much like the opera "Mefistofele" itself--and it was always interesting to reflect on the "satanic" music students that might be being trained inside there! Boito himself was born in Padua, but had long standing professional connections with the well-to-do town of Parma, birth place of Boito's great collaborator, Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi came from a poor village, just outside Parma, called "Roncole" (now renamed "Roncole Verdi" in his honour). It is said that Verdi hated Parma and it is certainly true that once he got successfully away to Milan, he never returned there. The relationship with Boito, however, proved more productive and today Arrigo Boito is remembered mostly as the writer of the superb libretti (or books) for Verdi's last two Shakespearean operas: "Otello" and "Falstaff". Perhaps there are even some music enthusiasts that are unaware of Boito's reputation as a gifted musician and composer--in spite of the fact that his masterpiece, "Mefistofele" has now been a regular part of the European and American operatic repertoire for more than a hundred years.

Boito, unlike most young Italian composers was profoundly influenced by Richard Wagner's ideas about "music drama": in particular, the concept that the drama was as important--if not even more important--than the music, affected the way he thought about opera. With the discovery of the Faust legend, Boito believed he had at last found a theme sufficiently grand and noble for him to turn into an opera. Of course, the story of Faust was a recurring theme in medieval Europe with its compelling presentation of a learned man who still believed himself to be a fool, knowing nothing worthwhile. Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to discover truth and enjoyment in life; eventually, however, he is forced to pay his debt to Mephistopheles and deliver up his soul. At last then, even though it is too late, he acknowledges his own stupidity and hybris. Christopher Marlowe's renaissance drama ("Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?") follows this traditional presentation with Faust torn to pieces by devils at the end. However, the romantic German writer, Wolfgang Von Goethe, saw things in a different light and allowed Faust to find eventual forgiveness. First, however, he must find a moment of perfect beauty and ask for time to be arrested so he can enjoy it eternally ("Arrestati, sei bello!"). After Faust has exhausted all the beauties of Greek art and feminine loveliness, the grace of the Judeo-Christian God falls upon him and he asks that the fleeting moment should be stopped--thus cheating Mefistofele of the soul he had expected to take.

Boito took over this more expansive version of the Faust legend from Goethe for operatic treatment and although the strangeness of the first performance alienated many listeners (who saw too many similarities to the hated Wagner in Boito's score), a subsequent revision of the score during which the central part of Faust himself was transposed from baritone to tenor, successfully won over the Italian critics. During the rest of his life, Boito wrote only one more opera, "Nerone" (or "Nero"), which was still incomplete at the time of his death. "Mefistofele", however, had been enough to establish his reputation at home and abroad.

In opera houses around the world today, the American baritone, Samuel Ramey has made the part of Mefistofele very much his own. Indeed, "Mefistofele" demands a very special quality of voice and high acting skills from its chief characters. The great closing scene, where Mefistofele is denied Faust's soul and is stung by corrosive rose petals sent down from God's angels, is probably one of the most dramatic in all opera. The curtain eventually closes on Faust being taken up on high while Mefistofeles, "the old reprobate" is left whistling his hatred and contempt for God.


Anonymous spidey said...

Great picture!

1:03 AM  

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