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Arrigo BOITO(1842-1918)
Mefistofele - opera in a Prologue, Four Acts and Epilogue (1868)
Mefistofele - Ferrucio Furlanetto (bass); Faust - Giuseppe Filianoti (tenor); Margherita and Helen of Troy - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Marta - Sonia Zaramella (mezzo); Pantalis - Monica Minarelli (mezzo)
Chorus, Orchestra and Corps de Ballet of Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily/Stefano Ranzani
rec. Teatro Massimo, Palermo, January 2008
Director: Giancarlo del Monaco; Set Designer: Carlo Centolavigna; Costume Designer: Maria Filippi
Filmed in 16:9, High Definition,
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.
Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German and French
DYNAMIC DVD 33581 [2 DVDs: 144:00]
Experience Classicsonline


Arrigo Boito was one of two sons born to a dissolute painter of miniatures and a Polish Countess. A man of considerable intellectual capacity he won a grant to enter the Milan Conservatory. In straitened circumstances his mother, by then widowed, made a successful petition for him to be kept there free. This enabled Boito to complete his musical studies and pass with honours. At age twenty he composed the words for Verdi’s Hymn of Nations, a work he composed, as Italy’s representative, for the Great Exhibition in London in 1862. After a year’s travelling scholarship in Europe Boito returned to his native Italy with the mission to regenerate Italy’s music, which he, and associates, considered had fallen behind developments in north Europe. The group were called the scapigliatura, or tousle-haired. These bohemians, with the polymath Boito writing in aureate prose, caused much confusion and offence in Italy, not least to Verdi, by far the pre-eminent composer of the day. Many years later, encouraged by the publisher Ricordi, Boito ate humble pie and was reconciled to the great man. Boito facilitated Verdi’s return to composition and the latter’s last two great Shakespeare-based operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). He wrote and fashioned their librettos to suit the great composer. Boito also wrote the librettos for other composers such as La Gioconda (1876) for Ponchielli as well as translating foreign libretti, among them Wagner’s Rienzi.

With his writing, poetry and music Boito was a veritable polymath. His reputation and skills extended to his musical aspirations and he set out to write an opera of vast dimension to his own libretto. It was distilled from the two parts of Goethe’s Faust and was entitled Mefistofele. It differs from Gounod’s well-known version on Goethe’s poem that concludes with the prison scene and Marguerita’s redemption. In Boito’s case Mefistofele whisks Faust off to the temptations of Troy and Helen.

Helped by influential friends, and even though it was Boito’s first operatic work, Mefistofele was scheduled for its premiere at La Scala on 5 March 1868. The libretto, extensive and bulky, was published several weeks before the premiere and contained a preface in the form of a conversation between the composer, a critic and member of the public. Composers who wrote their own libretti were unknown in Italy and Boito went even further. Unwisely over-confident and with little skill, he decided to direct the production and conduct his own music as well! Although the Prologue was well received, the longer the performance went on - and it went on until half past one in the morning – so the hostility towards the work increased. Later it was decided to give the six-hour opera in two parts on successive nights. There was little difference in the result.

For the next seven or so years Boito earned his living by writing libretti for other composers and translating various works including Shakespeare’s Othello. He did not, however, lose sight of the prospect of presenting his Mefistofele in a revised and more accessible form. The revised and shortened work was presented in 1875 at the Teatro Communale, Bologna. It was where Wagner’s Lohengrin had been received sympathetically - and work which Milan hissed off the stage two years later!

The revised Mefistofele was more compact and incisive in both its music and dramaturgy. In this form it has maintained a permanent, if not popular place, in the operatic repertoire in Italy. Toscanini regularly revived it at La Scala, memorably in 1901 with Caruso as Faust and Chaliapin, on his house debut, as Mefistofele. It was presented at the San Francisco Opera in 1990 with Samuel Ramey in the title role – a production which has appeared on DVD.

The secret of keeping the work in the repertoire seems to be that of making the most of the opportunities for spectacle. Giancarlo del Monaco and his design and costume team certainly seem to have that as a primary objective. The opening orchestral prologue (Disc 1 Ch.1) is sonorous and caught here with an excitingly wide dynamic. A seemingly vast tunnel, coloured in blue hues, dominates the stage. There is a figure in the tunnel and he carries a chair. It is Mefistofele himself, in a cowl, making his way from heaven as the chorus sing and he chides God that he will be victorious over the kingdom of heaven (Ch.3). Straightaway the strength and vibrancy of the chorus is evident as is the sonority of Ferrucio Furlanetto singing in his first assumption of the role.

Act one, Easter Sunday, is set around a colourful fairground roundabout (Chs.4-7). The men are in modern dress with pullovers, caps and the odd trilby. There are circus performers on stilts, acrobats, balloons and dobbin horses. Mefistofele, dressed as a Grey Friar looks on whilst we see the elderly, heavily-bearded, Faust holding on to the arm of a younger man. In the aria Al soave raggiar di primerva (Ch.5) Faust expresses his delight at the approach of spring. On his return to his study (Ch.6) he prepares to study the Gospel and offers to share his cell with the Grey Friar who quickly emerges in the guise of a gentleman with sleek black hair in a satin-patterned jacket and black tie and whistles eerily. The two make the pact that in exchange for wisdom and youth Mefistofele will have Faust’s soul if Faust says Stop you are beautiful. Giuseppe Filianot’s lyric tenor is a little dry but he sings with good diction and phrasing. Ferrucio Furlanetto continues the strong vocal and acted impression of the Prologue.

If money was no object in act one, in the first scene of act two (Ch.8) the stage is sparse, dressed only with a single tree. Faust, now called Enrico, is wooing a young village girl, Margherita. Mefistofele canoodles with Martha her neighbour and seems to be getting distinctly carnal by the end of the scene. Martha is well sung by Sonia Zaramella. Meanwhile, impressed by Enrico’s demeanour, dress and air of distinction as well as ardour, Margherita makes an assignation with him. To make sure they are not disturbed, Enrico gives her a potion to administer to her mother. As Margherita Dimitra Theodossiou fines down her voice in Cavaliero illustre e saggio and gives a convincing vocal portrayal in this scene.

Any savings on scenery in the first scene of the act are spent in scene two (Chs 9 and 10), ‘The night of the Witches Sabbath’. By now Faust has abandoned Margherita and is taken to where the witches and warlocks are gathered in multi-coloured exotic and weird costumes. Mefistofele appears as their king with multi-horned headgear that defeats my vocabulary. With flashing coloured lights on a cyclorama, the curtains open to reveal a staircase at the top of which is a large multi-faceted global mirror. In a veritable coup de théâtre Mefistofele is lifted to the top of the stairs in a massive tube as he glories over the false race that the earth, as represented by the globe, supports (Chs.9 and 10). Furlanetto played and sang this scene with secure tone and without over-hamming his part, no mean feat. Whilst the festivities continue Faust is disturbed by a vision he believes to be Margherita, with a line about her throat.

The visual excesses of the previous act are immediately contrasted by the sparse stage of Margherita’s prison cell in act three (Disc 2 Chs. 1-3). She has been condemned to death for killing her child and poisoning her mother and is delirious. In L’altra notte in fondo she recounts the accusations against her as Faust arrives and demands that he and Mefistofele rescue her. Mefistofele gives Faust the keys. He enters and tries to comfort her and pleads with her to go with him. Mefistofele calls time as day is dawning, but recognising him Margherita turns her face away as a ladder in the form of a cross descends. Margherita crawls towards it, climbs towards heaven and is redeemed with Dimitra Theodossiou singing a radiant farewell and condemnation of Enrico. Mefistofele leads Faust away. The singing and acting of the three principals enhances this very simple and effective stage scene with the video director playing a full part.

Again in act four (Chs.4 and 5) there is massive visual contrast with what had immediately preceded it. The ‘Night of the Classical Sabbath’ is supposed to take place in Classical Greece as Faust is transported by Mefistofele’s magic to Troy and Helen. In this production, licence is extended to a vividly La Vegas-type town populated by coloured neon signs for clubs, casinos and restaurants. In the middle of the stage is a large pink shell. This opens to reveal Helen and Pantalis indulging some kind of homo-erotic fondling as nymphets dance around them. Faust arrives in a multi-coloured Hawaiian shirt accompanied by Mefistofele looking something like a gendarme and with a camera round his neck. With his tone now a little dry, Giuseppe Filianoti as Faust propositions Helen whilst her erstwhile bosom friend looks on with chagrin. Surely the BBC could make a good soap story line out of this! As Helen, Dimitra Theodossiou is now in her normal vocal territory and sings with strength, sonority and good characterisation, also without the facial contortions I did not go for in her Norma (see review). However, whilst her singing is a strength, her shoulder-revealing costume does nothing for her as a seductress.

The Epilogue (Chs.6-8) concludes Boito’s interpretation of Goethe’s poem. Faust is once again an old man – an impression here emphasised by an exaggerated facial prosthesis. Mefistofele recumbent in a chair, recounts Faust’s winners; it is now pay-back time. But Faust does not want to yield his soul to the devil. Mefistofele tries to hypnotise him again and Faust pronounces the fateful phrase. It seems Mefistofele has won. But Faust entrusts himself to the Gospel and is saved by the grace of God as the angelic choirs of the Prologue are heard once again. Mefistofele sinks into his long multi-coloured tunnel. Whether he is going down to his realm or up to chide God again is left to the imagination.

Mefistofele turned out to be Boito’s only completed opera. Despite encouragement from Verdi and Toscanini his life’s work, the opera Nerone, was uncompleted at this death in 1918 aged 76. A premiere was planned for La Scala in 1914 featuring the conductor and Carus, both then based at the Met. Over the following years Toscanini supervised the musical completion of Nerone and presented it at La Scala on 1 May 1924 with Pertile and Journet in the most elaborate and expensive production in the theatre’s history. Maybe opera lost out with Boito’s lack of concentration on composition, but if this polymath had given his full concentration to those skills the history of performing opera would certainly be very different from that which we know.

Boito, like Verdi had a keen sense of theatre and in the complete production book he gives details as to how each character should move as well as giving singers instructions as to characterisation. His music, as exemplified in this performance, has much dramatic strength as well as melody. Add the advantage of the visual spectacle given in this production and it is a worthwhile addition to the repertoire of any large well-budgeted opera company. The Teatro Massimo, in its architecturally wonderful building on the Piazza Verdi in Palermo, Sicily, is to be congratulated on taking the risks and bringing the work to the stage for one of its occasional airings.
Robert J Farr


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