Mefistofele, Opera by A. Boito
The legend of Dr Faust and his fatal deal with the Devil has fascinated generations. Out of the few opera adaptations it inspired, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito stands out. The Italian librettist and composer approached the source text, Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with utmost respect and a grand plan. His operatic rendition would at once unlock the hidden depths of the story and set it to a score that matched its profundity. Mefistofele premiered at Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 5 March 1868, when Boito’s lofty ambitions crashed head-on with harsh reality. The five-act epic collapsed under its own weight, the audience lost patience with the drawn-out action and the avant-garde musical style, and the cast could not handle the complex score. Determined to make his only complete opera a success, Boito greatly abridged the original version, and the new Mefistofele found some success after its second premiere on 4 October 1875 in Bologna and in the following decades. Revivals persist to this day, and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma brings the legendary story to Rome this season.
Despite its problematic debut, Mefistofele is a true gem of Italian opera. Boito approached the project with considerable ideological verve. On the one hand, he revered Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s treatment of the Faust legend; on the other, he pretty much despised previous opera versions based on it for their superficiality. To lend his work the necessary gravitas, Boito looked to Richard Wagner for creative inspiration. Like Wagner, Boito penned his own libretto, which was far from standard practice in Italian opera. Again, like the German composer’s notoriously long works, the original Mefistofele played until midnight. Even after the necessary revisions and reductions, the work retained its unique character that makes it a one-off example of 19th-century Italian opera and a notable piece that needs to be heard and seen.
The plot of Mefistofele follows Goethe’s Faust quite closely. In fact, most of the text is Boito’s direct Italian translation of the German source. The aging Dr Faust enters into a pact with the Devil (Mefistofele): he sells his immortal soul for youth and pleasures in his remaining life on Earth. On his escapades, he charms the innocent village girl Margherita, with tragic consequences. Will Faust repent and will he earn redemption? Rome’s Teatro Costanzi has the answers.