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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Mefistofele (Boito)

(English title: Mephistopheles)
An Opera by Arrigo Boito

Opera in four acts; words and music by Arrigo Boito, the book based on Goethe’s Faust. Produced, without success, La Scala, Milan, March 5, 1868; revised and revived, with success, Bologna, October 4, 1875. London, Her Majesty’s Theatre, July 1, 1880. New York Academy of Music, November 24, 1880, with Campanini, Valleria, Cary, and Novara; and Metropolitan Opera House, December 5, 1883, Campanini, Nilsson, Trebelli, and Mirabella. Revivals: Metropolitan Opera House, 1889 (Lehmann); 1896 (Calvé); 1901 (Margaret McIntyre, Homer, and Plancon); 1904 (Caruso and Eames); 1907 (Chaliapine); later with Caruso, Hempel, Destinn, and Amato. Manhattan Opera House, 1906, with Renaud. Chicago Opera Company, with Ruffo. The singer of Margaret usually takes the part of Elena (Helen), and the Martha also is the Pantalis.


MEFISTOFELE……………………………………… Bass
FAUST………………………………………………. Tenor
MARGHERITA……………………………………… Soprano
MARTHA…………………………………………… Contralto
WAGNER…………………………………………… Tenor
ELENA………………………………………………… Soprano
PANTALIS……………………………………………. Contralto
NERENO……………………………………………… Tenor
Mystic choir, celestial phalanxes, cherubs, penitents, wayfarers, men-at-arms, huntsmen, students, citizens, populace, townsmen, witches, wizards, Greek chorus, sirens, naiads, dancers, warriors.

Place: Heaven; Frankfurt, Germany; Vale of Tempe, Ancient Greece.
Time: Middle Ages.

"Mefistofele" is in a prologue, four acts, and epilogue. In Gounod’s "Faust," the librettists were circumspect, and limited the book of the opera to the first part of Goethe’s Faust, the story of Faust and Marguerite-succinct, dramatic, and absorbing. Only for the ballet did they reach into the second part of Goethe’s play and appropriate the scene on the Brocken, which, however, is frequently omitted.

Boito, himself a poet, based his libretto on both parts of Goethe’s work, and endeavoured to give it the substratum of philosophy upon which the German master reared his dramatic structure. This, however, resulted in making "Mefistofele" two operas in one. Wherever the work touches on the familiar story of Faust and Marguerite, it is absorbingly interesting, and this in spite of the similarity between some of its scenes and those of Gounod’s "Faust." When it strays into Part II of Goethe’s drama, the main thread of the action suddenly seems broken. The skein ravels. That is why one of the most profound works for the lyric stage, one of the most beautiful scores that has come out of Italy, is heard so rarely.

Theodore T. Barker prefaces his translation of the libretto, published by Oliver Ditson Company, with a recital of the story.

The Prologue opens in the nebulous regions of space, in which float the invisible legions of angels, cherubs, and seraphs. These lift their voices in a hymn of praise to the Supreme Ruler of the universe. Mefistofele enters on the scene at the close of the anthem, and standing erect amid the clouds, with his feet upon the border of his cloak, mockingly addresses the Deity. In answer to the question from the mystic choir, "Knowest thou Faust?," he answers contemptuously, and offers to wager that he will be able to entice Faust to evil, and thus gain a victory over the powers of good. The wager is accepted, and the spirits resume their chorus of praise.

Musically the Prologue is full of interest. There are five distinct periods of music, varied in character, so that it gives necessary movements to a scene in which there is but little stage action. There are the prelude with mystic choir; the sardonic scherzo foreshadowing the entry of Mefistofele; his scornful address, in which finally he engages to bring about the destruction of Faust’s soul; a vivacious chorus of cherubs (impersonated by twenty-four boys); a psalmody of penitents and spirits.

Act I. The drama opens on Easter Sunday, at Frankfort-on-the Main. Crowds of people of all conditions move in and out of the city gates. Among them appears a grey friar, an object of both reverence and dread to those near him. The aged Dr. Faust and his pupil Wagner descend from a height and enter upon the scene, shadowed by the friar, whose actions they discuss. Faust returns to his laboratory, still at his heels the friar, who, unheeded, enters with him, and conceals himself in an alcove. Faust gives himself to meditation, and upon opening the sacred volume, is started by a shriek from the friar as he rushes from his place of concealment. Faust makes the all-potent "sign of Solomon," which compels Mefistofele to throw off his friar’s disguise and to appear in his own person in the garb of a cavalier, with a black cloak upon his arm. In reply to Faust’s questionings, he declares himself the spirit that denieth all things, desiring only the complete ruin of the world, and a return to chaos and night. He offers to make Faust the companion of his wanderings, upon certain conditions, to which the latter agrees, saying: "If thou wilt bring me one hour of peace, in which my soul may rest -- if thou wilt unveil the world and myself before me -- if I may find cause to say to some flying moment, ‘Stay, for thou art blissful,’ then let me die, and let hell’s depths engulf me." The contract competed, Mefistofele spreads his cloak, and both disappear through the air.

The first scene of this act gains its interest from the reflection in the music of the bustle and animation of the Easter festival. The score plastically follows the many changing incidents of the scene upon the stage. Conspicuous in the episodes in Fault’s laboratory are Faust’s beautiful air, "Dai campi, dai prati" (From the fields and from the meadows); and Mefistofele’s proclamation of his identity, "Son lo spirito che nega" (I am the spirit that denieth).

Act II opens with the garden scene. Faust, rejuvenated, and under the name of Henry; Margaret, Mefistofele, and Martha stroll here and there in couples, chatting and love-making. Thence Mefistofele takes Faust to the heights of the Brocken, where he witnesses the orgies of the Witches’ Sabbath. The fiend is welcomed and saluted as their king. Faust, benumbed and stupefied, gazes into the murky sky, and experiences there a vision of Margaret, pale, sad, and fettered with chains.

In this act the garden scene is of entrancing grace. It contains Faust's "Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito" (Flood thou thy heart with all the bliss), and the quartet of farewell, with which the scene ends, Margaret, with the gay and reckless laugh of ineffable bliss, exclaiming to Faust that she loves him. The scene in the Brocken, besides the whirl of the witches’ orgy, has a solo for Mefistofele, when the weird sisters present to him a glass globe, reflected in which he sees the earth. "Ecco el mondo" (Behold the earth).

Act III. The scene is a prison. Margaret lies extended upon a heap of straw, mentally wandering, and singing to herself. Mefistofele and Faust appear outside the grating. They converse hurriedly, and Faust begs for the life of Margaret. Mefistofele promises to do what he can, and bids him haste, for the infernal steeds are ready for flight. He opens the cell, and Faust enters it. Margaret thinks the jailors have come to release her, but at length recognizes her lover. She describes what followed his desertion of her, and begs him to lay her in death beside her loved ones; -- her babe, whom she drowned, her mother whom she is accused of having poisoned. Faust entreats her to fly with him, and she finally consents, saying that in some far distant isle they may yet be happy. But the voice of Mefistofele in the background recalls her to the reality of the situation. She shrinks away from Faust, prays to Heaven for mercy, and dies. Voices of the celestial choir are singing softly "She’s saved!" Faust and Mefistofele escape as the executioner and his escort appear in the background.

The act opens with Margaret’s lament, "L’astra notte in fondo al mare" (To the sea, one night in sadness), in which she tells of the drowning of her babe. Thee is an exquisite duet, for Margaret Faust, "Lontano, sui fluti d’un ampio oceano" (Far away, o’er the waves of a far-spreading ocean).

Act IV. Mefistofele taes Faust to the shores of the Vale fo tempe. Faust is ravished with the beauty of the scene while Mefistofele finds that he orgies of the Brocken were more to his taste.

‘Tis the night of the classic Sabbath. A band of young maidens appear, singing and dancing. Mefistofele, annoyed and confused, retires. Helen enters with chorus, and, absorbed by a terrible vision, rehearses the story of Troy’s destruction. Faust enters, richly clad in the costume of a knight of the fifteenth century, followed by Mefistofele, Nereno, Pantalis, and others, with little fauns and sirens. Kneeling before Helen, he addresses her as his ideal of beauty and purity. Thus pledging to each other their love and devotion, they wander through the bowers and are lost to sight.

Helen’s ode, "La luna immobile inonda l’etere" (Motionless floating, the moon floods the dome of night); her dream of the destruction of Troy; the love duet for Helen and Faust, "Ah! Amore! misterio celeste" (‘Tis love, a mystery celestial); and the dexterous weaving of a musical background by orchestra and chorus, are the chief features in the score to this act.

In the Epilogue, we find Faust in his laboratory once more -- an old man, with death fast approaching, mourning over his past life, with the holy volume open before him. Fearing that Faust may yet escape him, Mefistofele spreads his cloak, and urges Faust to fly with him through the air. Appealing to Heaven, Faust is strengthened by the sound of angelic songs, and resists. Foiled in his efforts, Mefistofele conjures up a vision of beautiful sirens. Faust hesitates a moment, flies to the sacred volume, and cries, "Here at last I find salvation"; then falling on his knees in prayer, effectually overcomes the temptations of the evil one. He then dies amid a shower of rosy petals, and to the triumphant song of a celestial choir. Mefistofele has lost his wager, and holy influences have prevailed.

We have here Faust’s lament, "Giunto sol passo extremo" (Nearing the utmost limit); his prayer, and the choiring of salvation.

Arrigo Boito was, it will be recalled, the author of the books to Ponchielli’s opera "La Gioconda," and Verdi’s "Otello" and "Falstaff." He was born in Padua, February 24, 1842. From 1853 to 1862 he was a pupil of the Milan Conservatory. During a long sojourn in Germany and Poland he was to become an ardent admirer of Wagner's music. Since "Mephistophele" Boito has written and composed another opera "Nerone" (Nero), but has withheld it from production.

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