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Samuel Ramey sang one of his signature roles, the title role of Mefistofele, in this production both in 1989 (pictured) and 1994

These words from the printed preface to the first edition of Mefistofele tell us more about their author, Arrigo Boito, than about Goethe’s super-devil. Born in Padua in 1842, the son of a Polish countess and a ne’er-do-well miniaturist from the Veneto, Boito was something of an outsider on the Italian scene. His father decamped after two years of marriage, leaving Arrigo’s mother to bring up her two children. Of his family Boito knew only his mother’s relations, but he considered himself wholly Italian with a mission to enlarge his country’s intellectual and artistic horizons and into the vanguard of European culture.

The time was certainly ripe for such an ambition. Under the powers of the Holy Alliance, Italy’s art and literature had tended toward stagnation, and never more palpably than in the decade that followed the collapse of the 1848 uprising. Even opera, the one musical sphere in which Italy had retained a certain hegemony, was languishing. The post-Rossinian tradition that sustained the invention of Donizetti and Bellini had lost its vitality. Only Verdi remained capable of perpetual self-renewal. Beneath the surface, however, powerful forces were stirring; powers that would break out into the open the moment Italy attained freedom and independence.

The movement known as Scapigliatura (literally, “dishevelment”) took its name from a novel by Carlo Righetti, but its true founder and guide was the writer Giuseppe Rovani, an imposing figure who mentored a host of young artists and litterateurs on aesthetic and moral principles. Their aims were above all iconoclastic. They defied the accepted canons of art and religion and detested the cautious reformers. Thus, the liberal Catholicism of Alessandro Manzoni, the one surviving literary giant of the age, was anathema to them. “Now is the hour of the Antichrist,” the poet Emilio Praga proclaimed. “Christ has died again.”

Returning to Milan in 1863 after two years abroad, Boito threw himself heart and soul into the movement, becoming one of its leading propagandists both in music and literature. As a theatrical critic he attacked the entire apparatus of the established church: “Our generation... cries aloud that every day Catholicism crumbles, that fetishism is in ruins, that a restless search for truth… is rearing its head. It cries continually that God has putrefied, that man has made himself divine, that the Man–God no longer exists, that Genius alone is the Son of God... that the Holy Spirit is no longer amongst us, that there is no Easter, no Virgin, and no Resurrection...” and so on. His most characteristic product of those years was a bizarre poem, II Re Orso (King Bear) about a monarch haunted by a mysterious voice that bids him beware of the “worm’s bite”; and of course it is the worm who wins in the end, devouring the king’s dead body. The general layout, with its recurrent motifs and wealth of verbal assonance, gives the sense of a symphonic poem in words, and not by chance.
San Francisco Opera presented Mefistofele in its 1923 inaugural season. The cast included Adamo Didur (left) in the title role, Bianca Saroya (center) as Margherita, and Beniamino Gigli (right) as Faust.
For Boito, music remained the supreme art—”the queen of all the arts; more than a queen: a goddess.” He preached the regeneration of the long-lost Italian instrumental tradition chiefly through the study of the great German classics, whose authors he discoursed upon in bursts of high-flown imagery, not always comprehensible. “Haydn proceeds from Bach like the flowering cytisus from the terrible rock.” In Schumann’s music it is not Schumann who sings, “it is a Sybil, a grace, a zvango [a word for which you will search in vain in an Italian dictionary], a god. Every time the critic’s pen encounters the name of Beethoven it should pause before it, like a pilgrim before a cross.” The comparison of a Mozart slow movement with one by Mendelssohn prompted him to a notorious blaze of rhetoric:

The Sublime is simpler than the beautiful. The Beautiful can become incarnate in every kind of form from the bizarre to the multiple and disparate: for the Sublime only one form will suffice: the grand form, the form that is divine, universal, eternal—the spherical form. The horizon is sublime, the sea is sublime, the sun is sublime. Shakespeare is spherical, Dante is spherical, Beethoven is spherical; the sun is simpler than a carnation, the sea simpler than the brook, Mendelssohn’s Adagio is spherical and simpler than Mozart’s Andante.”

For Boito, however, the ultimate goal always had to be opera. “Let us practice the symphony and the quartet,” he declared, “so as to be able to tackle the lyric drama.” Not the kind of opera to which Italians had long been accustomed. To the post-Rossinian tradition with its abundance of fixed patterns such as the aria, the duet, the pezzo concertato, he opposed a firm Mephistophelian “No!” These were mere formulae—a term that by its etymological derivation revealed its essentially trivializing nature. What was wanted was form in the grandest sense. But how was it to be achieved? Evidently not with the help of Wagnerian methods.

“Wagner,” Boito admitted, “destroyed the operatic formula, Wagner promised to enlarge the bounds of rhythm and melody, Wagner in his triple role as poet, composer, and aesthetic philosopher seemed to be the man born and predestined to accomplish the mission of renewal… It would be unkind of us not to recognize in his music a powerful instinct, a vigorous muscular frame, but his dramas are inept and ridiculous in the face of the task they were called upon to undertake.”

Clearly it was up to Boito himself to set an example for others to follow; in due course the opportunity presented itself. Among the themes that occupied Boito throughout his life was the polarity of good and evil, and nowhere did he see this problem more comprehensively worked out than in the monumental poetic drama of Goethe. The notion of Faust as an operatic subject seems to have occurred to him during his conservatory days in the 1850s; by 1867 its realization seemed a possibility. The venue was to be Milan’s La Scala, where the musical director was Boito’s old teacher Alberto Mazzucato. He could also count on the support of Filippo Filippi, the leading critic of the time and himself a member of the Scapigliatura, and that of Giulio Ricordi, a close personal friend and the effective head of his ailing father’s publishing firm.

It was not Boito’s first venture into the operatic world. In 1865 he had already written a libretto for his friend Franco Faccio’s Amleto. But Mefistofele, as it would be called, was to be very different: a large-scale music drama exploring the German poet’s thought in all its ramifications without any concessions to current practice. Its only conventional feature was to be Mefistofele’s aria “Son lo spirito che nega,” cast in the form of French couplets in the manner of Meyerbeer (a composer, incidentally, much admired by Boito). Even this would contain its own condemnation: a refrain consisting of loud whistles, the traditional [European] sign of audience disapproval. At the premiere, alas, this turned out to be more than a metaphor.

The first performance took place on March 5, 1868, and Boito himself unwisely assumed the direction. Not everything was disliked. There was some applause for the Prologue in Heaven and for the quartet in the garden scene, while the Classical Sabbath was heard in respectful silence. For the rest of the score, whistles and boos were the order of the day. In view of the opera’s immense length (the show ended at half-past one in the morning) it was decided to revive it in two parts, to be given on successive evenings. But in this form, the opera fared no better. The singers were hopelessly demoralized, and amid shouts of “Basta!” the curtain fell on March 8 on the original Mefistofele, never to rise again.

The critics were no less hostile. Some accused Boito fatuously of having imitated Wagner, whose name was then on everyone’s lips, though few had heard a note of his music. Typical of the general consensus was a notice that appeared in L’Emporia Pittoresco: “The music of Mefistofele could not please.... There is no passion, and the monotony of the recitative ends by boring. Boito should realize that he has given a far more convincing proof of his talent for literature, and his failure may turn out to be a blessing if it induces him to cultivate that field and no other.” Nor was the verdict of Boito’s friend Giulio Ricordi very different, though expressed in more diplomatic terms. “Boito has written an opera with many virtues and not a few defects. The question is: are these defects due to inexperience as regards the stage and matters theatrical? In that case, so much the better; we shall note a steady progress from one opera to the next, and in due course I shall hope to number Boito among the great composers. If, however, these faults are the result of a preconceived theory, of an unshakable artistic conviction, then I must say with all the frankness which informs my warm and deeply felt friendship for Boito: you may be a poet and a distinguished man of letters, but you will never be a composer for the musical stage.”

Portrait of Arrigo Boito by Leopoldo Metlicovitch
Courtesy Bridgeman Art Library

Unfortunately, we cannot judge the matter for ourselves since no holograph of the 1868 version of Mefistofele exists, nor was it ever published in vocal score. When he came to revise it seven years later, Boito tore out and destroyed the pages that he wished to replace. No trace remains of a dialogue between Faust and his disciple Wagner on the real and the ideal, an encounter with Lilith on the Brocken followed by a “black” Miserere, and an extended scene set in the throne room of an emperor to whom Mefistofele presents himself as a new jester. Two pieces were added: the duettino “Lontano, lontano, lontano,” lifted from Boito’s unfinished Era e Leandro and Margherita’s prison aria, “Spunta l’aurora pallida.” The effect of the revision was to reduce the opera to manageable proportions and a somewhat more traditional layout. The five acts became four; and Faust was transformed from a baritone into a tenor.

The premiere of the new Mefistofele took place on August 5th, 1875, at the Teatro Comunale, Bologna, which prided itself on its forward-looking policy (in 1871 it had witnessed the first Italian performance of a Wagner opera, namely Lohengrin). The result, if not an uncontested triumph, was enough of a success to permit a circulation among the major theaters of the peninsula. For a revival in Venice the following year, Boito made a further modification, after which the opera entered the international repertoire. Nowhere was it better received than in England, where it would feature in several Covent Garden seasons towards the end of the century. Reviewing the revival of 1889, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Boito’s version of the Faust story seems almost as popular as Gounod’s”—surely an overstatement, considering that the French work was given at Covent Garden every year from 1863 until 1911—”though Gounod’s is a true musical creation whereas Boito has only adapted the existing resources of orchestration and harmony very ably to his libretto. The whole work is a curious example of what can be done in opera by an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts, but with ten times the taste and culture of a musician of only ordinary extraordinariness.”

A shrewd judgment, this, like so many of Shaw’s on Italian opera. It is true that Boito never developed a musical style that is instantly recognizable as his own. That of Mefistofele is distinctly eclectic. More than one critic noted the debt of Faust’s solo “Dai campi, dai prati” to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata; anyone familiar with the love duet in Franco Faccio’s I Profughi Fiamminghi would have found a clear precedent for Margherita’s “Cavalliero illustre a saggio”; and the main theme of the duet between Faust and Elena belongs to the family of Verdi’s “Dunque l’onta di tutti sol una” in Un Ballo in Maschera.

The years that followed the fiasco of 1868 had taught the composer some valuable lessons. He had descended from the clouds of Scapigliatura theorizing to become a practical man of the theater. He wrote several libretti for other composers to use, among them La Gioconda, Ponchielli’s most successful stage work and arguably the only Italian “grand opera” that can stand comparison with Verdi’s Aida. He even came to terms with Wagner, making translations of Rienzi, Das Liebesmahl der Apostolen, and eventually Tristan und Isolde. But his attitude to the Master of Bayreuth remained ambivalent. He was stirred by the music, but repelled by the dramaturgy. He compared Die Walküre to a stopping train that takes ages to reach its destination.

By 1870 the Scapigliatura had begun to disintegrate. Many of Boito’s former associates had espoused realism in art and the left wing in politics; he himself held proudly aloof from both. As a writer he inclined towards the subtly allusive metaphor, the pregnant phrase, drawing upon a vocabulary that ranged from medieval times to his own day but always supremely adaptable to musical thought. The chief fruits of his literary labors were garnered by the aged Verdi in Otello and, more especially, Falstaff. And indeed Boito was later to claim as his chief glory the fact that he had “made the bronze colossus resound twice.” Meanwhile, as a musician, he found himself increasingly isolated among his own countrymen. He had no sympathy with the “young school” headed by Puccini and Mascagni. He wrestled continually with his most ambitious project, a huge opera on the subject of Nero and his persecution of the Christians. Like Gustav Holst, he suffered bouts of nervous agraphia, during which he was unable to hold a pen. By the time Boito died in 1918, only four of the five acts had been set and not even they were fully scored; six years were to pass before Toscanini with the aid of the composer Vincenzo Tommasini was able to perform a presentable version of the torso. In Boito, the intellectual had for a long time stifled the creator.
Mefistofele remains his sole musical monument. It is, as Shaw observed, essentially the work of a literary man. But, if not a masterpiece of musical organization, several of its ideas are striking and imaginative. There are no lapses of taste; there is never a note or an instrument too many. The chorus “Ave Signor degli angeli,” with its suggestion of perpetual ascent, is unique in opera; nor will you find a more perfect miniature than the duet “Lontano, lontano, lontano.” Nowhere is the attention allowed to wander. Lacking both forebears and descendants, Mefistofele is a work that we should be the poorer without.

The late Julian Budden, an internationally renowned musicologist, was the author of the landmark three-volume series The Operas of Verdi. This article was previously published by San Francisco Opera Magazine.