Arrigo Boito – Mefistofele (1881)

Opera in a prologue, four acts, and epilogue. Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes. The recording includes Mario del Monaco as Faust and Renata Tebaldi as Margherita. The featured image is of Mefistofele making his wager with Heaven from the Ricordi Archive.

PLOT: Middle Ages, Heaven, Germany, Ancient Greece. Goethe’s Faust, much more of it than Gounod used in his opera on the same subject.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OU61EtmMEkY

PROLOGUE:

24.30: The prelude goes on for six minutes of brooding devilish music (Mefistofele) followed by one good heavenly bit (up down up down last bit held) and a rather corny heavenly melody that Wagner would have been ashamed of. All of this will return later in the opera and be used better. After one last repeat of Mefistofele and then ending with heavenly there are some good dramatic bits from the heavenly choir before they die down a bit and Mefistofele shows up (ten minutes in) after a repeat of the trumpet call and some orchestral scampering. This is rather ornery recitative with what probably amount to dozens of fragmented melodies scurrying around. The Heavenly choir calls him out and holds a “Sanctus” really long (not for the last time). There is then a somewhat annoying treble choir that thankfully disappears just as quickly, but no, more of the kids. Then altos join them and then everyone is rather brooding for the heavenly and then it escalates back into a repeat of the first chorus which will return in the epilogue in full glory and which ends on a sustained choral note over a Mefistofele’s flute/whistle motive (20 seconds!). This physical feat on its own is worthy of a star *.

ACT 1:

Scene: Easter, the main square of Frankfurt.

7, 13: Boito starts us off with some of the most Meistersinger music not written by Wagner in his introduction. The first sound is a bell, followed by Meistersinger with running strings in between repeats then up-downs orchestral and then choral. The rhythm is literally everywhere though. Then we get some scary music before Faust shows up with Wagner (no relation) to a shimmering accompaniment which quick dulls. Then there is a festal bit in the strings and a mild tune. It dies just as quickly as it arrived and then there is yet another chorus which isn’t terrible * but by this point we have been constantly bombarded by choral numbers one after another for over half an hour and it is getting a bit tiresome. Faust has another bit of Lohengrin-type heavenly musical accompaniment. This becomes a little scary again when Mefistofele shows up in monk garb and silently follows Faust out. Wagner has a scampering bit before the end that is followed by Faust’s crying out because of the friar and then some more from Wagner that isn’t terrible *, the chorus returns (female), fade out.

Scene 2: Faust’s study.

16: The scene starts almost immediately with what is the best number so far: Faust’s aria “Dai campi, dai prati” **. But it is gone in all of two minutes when Mefistofele reveals himself and freaks Faust out. Scary strings.

20: Mefistofele’s Whistle Aria in which he introduces himself to Faust and his offer is not terrible * but does have pacing issues (the rhythm is again all over the place). It also consists of around seven different melodies strung together and repeated in the same order twice.

25: The finale begins with Faust calling Mefistofele “son of chaos” and then Boito gives Faust yet another nice tenor lilting tune * as Faust asks to be made young and handsome again and Mefistofele obliges to yet another flighty melody which is then taken up more effectively with the much more dapper Faust. In the last 90 seconds Mefistofele lets Faust try out his magic by having him fly (literally). This is conceit, of course.

ACT 2:

Scene 1: Margherita’s garden.

5, 10: The scene starts with some music that isn’t exactly romantic, (garden music if such a think exists?). Anyway the music in this scene will pop up again throughout the rest of the show like a bubbling fountain of themes for Boito. Faust and Margherita come on first, then Mefistofele and Margherita’s mezzo/contralto nurse Marta and then back again. It is possibly the conducting because this scene usually plays a bit less tediously but here it is too slow and the rapid change over from one melody to another becomes more obvious than it normally would. Suddenly there is a gear change as Margherita challenges Faust’s agnostic views of God and his response (he loves her). This actually is rather lovely ** and the duet that flows from it is just as good. There is some jumble going on with the four voices in the quartet that follows and ends the scene though Margherita and especially Faust are able to lilt a little bit (a cascading theme *) that is worth looking out for and will return.

Scene 2: Witch’s Sabbat, Brocken mountains.

22, 25, 30: There is some weird woodwind work that is chromatic or something, anyway it is weird, it comes between Mefistofele’s first bit following the brooding low strings that introduce the scene and the beginning of the choral number (male). There is also a bit just as Faust comes on that sounds like the Flying Dutchman. The witches are really not that scary and their pacing is a bit incomprehensible which makes them even less scary. So does all the really, really mild dancing music that is supposed to be devilish and doesn’t fool you for a minute. Mefistofele really hates the world and tells us in a not so bad aria * which is preceded by some okay arioso con coro involving the already mentioned dance music. You can just tell that this aria includes a theme from Mefistofele’s aria in act 1. Suddenly this gets broken up by Faust seeing a vision of Margherita in danger (chains, a cut throat) which paraphrases several leitmotifs from the previous garden scene rather sweetly *. Mefistofele tries to make him forget all of this and then the chorus bursts in with their not-scary scary dance music, this time it goes fugue-al in any attempt to be more scary but never comes off better than Puccini will do in Le Villi and that descending crescendo is so annoying and the banging, the banging? When they become preoccupied with blood things at least get strange *.

ACT 3: The prison.

3: The twenty minutes that this act consists of are probably the most glorious of the opera, and yet we are in a prison cell. More musical brooding, one bit in the born coming off almost like a leitmotif in Das Rheingold. Then there is a romantic sounding flourish and with that Margherita gives us the closest thing this opera has to a bel canto aria (complete with coloratura ornaments). There is strong music here, including more leitmotifs from the garden scene as Faust arrives so it must be **. She has been imprisoned for administering a poison to her mother that Faust gave her claiming it was a sleeping potion during the garden scene.

8: Margherita is agitated by Faust’s arrival and he tells her to be calm but she becomes even more afraid and then there are even more references to the garden scene (the cascading theme). Much of the best music here consists of references to that earlier scene **.

12: The duet because even more serious on a new theme ** that borders on opera gold. It is also very Verdian as opposed to the bad Wagnerian we have been subjected to so much in this opera.

15: Mefistofele arrives and Margherita is terrified of him.

17: Margherita gets another emotive bit before she dies which grows slowly to its climax with Faust ** and she apotheosizes in the last minute to a return of the heavenly choral theme (sans choir until one “E salva” tells us she is saved and Mefistofele takes Faust with him. The conclusion is perhaps the most traditional of the opera (typical Verdian).

ACT 4:

2: Shimmering strings bring us back in time to Ancient Greece. It repeats over and over again like it’s the prelude to Parsifal on one or two major themes. Then harps (plural) bring us to Helen of Troy and her nurse Pantalis (what is up with women in this opera having duennas?). Anyways the song is nice * and Faust comes in with passionate gasps of “Elena! Elena! Elena!”.

4: Mefistofele ruins everything but Faust is lyrical.

6: There is a nice little dance *.

9: Female chorus arrives singing the triumph of Helen *.

10: Helen’s aria is more than a little diabolical *.

15: Faust’s love song to Helen does a better job with her than with us but when Helen and Co. join in it becomes so passionate in its own way and there is just a hint of one of the motifs from the garden scene but it flies away **. There are several musical ideas here that never expand much and that is a great shame.

19: Finally the love duet, almost haunting and ever shimmering *** and when taken to its conclusion perhaps the most adult melody in the entire piece (it is probably the opera’s finest passage). It continues until the end of the act four minutes later as Helen and Faust make love in her boat which floats away into dreamland.

EPILOGUE: Faust’s Study as in Act 1 Scene 2.

5: Brooding mood music (what else is new?). Faust is miserable and Mefistofele is trying to salvage a win out of what is obviously amounting to a defeat for the demonic. Margherita and Helen have not made Faust happy, in fact they have made him regret his pact with Mefistofele. After much ornery bickering between the two men Faust finally breaks loose into an okay aria * which very slowly builds and there is more agreeable bickering between the two men before–

8: The trumpet announces the return of the angelic choir and Mefistofele starts to realize that he is licked. Mefistofele returns to the golden theme from Act 4 in low key. This time, with Faust in ecstasy it is easier to recognize what Boito was trying to get to in the Prologue **. Mefistofele whistles, Faust dies from heavenly beauty, and the heavenly chorus remark on how dumb the devil was to make a bet with them (they hold that note again, this time for 18.5 seconds). Whew!

This is a good opera, but it takes a while to figure that out. The biggest problem with it is that Boito gave his best music not to Mefistofele (the title character) but to Faust and the very best music belongs to the tenor and his soprano heroine duo Margherita and to a lesser extent Helen of Troy. The good vs. evil competition is rather goofy (as is Mefistofele’s propensity for whistling in spite of its symbolism), but the epilogue chorus has a greater impact than it does in the prologue in spite of the fact that it is basically the same music.

Now a little history before finishing the review: this is of the revised version. The premiere in 1867 was a famous flop (especially the first scene of the original act 4 set at the court of the German Emperor and a symphonic intermezzo depicting a battle which I think we can all be happy no longer is perfomed (either of these) ). The opera does come off episodic though as a result of all the condensing Boito went about as a result (it was a third again LONGER than it is now and the first performance ended well after midnight and was in a prologue and FIVE ACTS, with the present Epilogue as act 5 and the present act 4 as the second half of act 4). I am not sure why the third act (which is only 20 minutes) is not the third scene of act 2, set issues? The fourth act is especially isolated from everything else as it involves time-travel on the part of Faust and Mefistofele.

And back to the musical review: Boito overuses the chorus (this is apparent in the first half hour) and the first great music in the opera is the tenor aria that opens the anti-choral act 1 scene 2. The Garden Scene is nice and melodic and the recurring themes from it in the later scenes are more than welcome, but Boito basically fails to make his witches and demons frightening or even scary. At best they are plain weird and weird isn’t scary, it’s just awkward. But the prison scene is pure operatic gold followed by a fourth act that although it starts off ordinarily (albeit shimmering) includes what is probably the greatest melody in the entire work. The epilogue is satisfactory. What holds the whole opera together is the conviction and skill of the tenor singing Faust, not ironically the bass singing Mefistofele (even though all productions emphasize the diabolical bass) and the devil of Boito is just as much a cartoon as Gounod’s. The best components are Faust’s “Dai campi, dai prati”, the Garden Scene, the Prison Act in its entirety, the second half of Act 4, and the heavenly choir demonstrating how awesome they are by holding a single note for 20 seconds, twice! An undoubted B.

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