Opera Scotland

Mefistofele Mephistopheles

Music

Arrigo Boito (born Padua, 24 February 1842; died Milan, 10 June 1918)

Text

The composer

Source

Dramatic poem Faust (Part I 1808; Part 2 1832) by Johann von Goethe (1749-1832).

 

Premieres

First performance: Milan (La Scala), 5 March 1868.

Revised version: Bologna (Teatro Comunale), 4 October 1875.

First UK performance: London (Her Majesty’s Theatre), 6 July 1880.

First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Royal Lyceum Theatre), 21 November 1884.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

 

Background

Boito was a hugely versatile musician, successful as a poet, librettist and journalist as well as an influential composer. His reputation as one of the most important figures in Italian nineteenth century opera survives mostly due to his activities as a librettist, particularly for Verdi’s last two operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). He had earlier helped Verdi in the revision of Simon Boccanegra (1881). Earlier still, in 1876, and under the pseudonym Tobia Gorrio (an anagram of his real name), he had written the enjoyable, though less distinguished, text for Ponchielli’s masterpiece La Gioconda (1876). He had originally studied music at the Milan Conservatory, when he started work on Mefistofele, and also in Paris. If it took him several years to complete Mefistofele (it did not reach its final form until 1881), he took even longer with his other opera, Nerone, which occupied him for the rest of his life, though it was only performed in 1924, after his death, in an edition prepared by Toscanini.

His version of Goethe’s gargantuan drama is more ambitious than Gounod’s, in that it sets sections of both plays – the familiar story of the seduction of Margherita only occupies a section of the whole, while Helen of Troy also puts in an appearance. The principals all have attractive music, and the title role is especially popular with charismatic basses, but the work is noted even more for the massed choirs of angels, etc. that populate the prologue and epilogue. It would be an excellent vehicle for the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

 

Characters

Mefistofele, the devil (bass)

Faust, an elderly academic (tenor)

Wagner, a pupil of Dr Faust (tenor)

Margherita (soprano)

Marta, Margherita's neighbour (mezzo-soprano)

Elena, Helen of Troy (soprano)

Pantalis, Helen's companion (mezzo-soprano)

Nereo (tenor)

 

Plot Summary

In the prologue, located in Heaven, Mephistopheles accepts a wager that he can persuade the reclusive Dr Faust to part with his immortal soul. He visits Faust and Wagner disguised as a friar. In his study, Faust is persuaded to sign the contract and he is changed into a handsome young man. He finds the seduction of Margherita a straightforward business, thanks to a drug supplied by Mephistopheles to sedate the girl’s mother. Some month’s later, Margherita is in prison awaiting execution – her mother has died as a result of the potion she administered, and she drowned the baby Faust had fathered. When Faust and Mephistopheles visit her she refuses their attempts to obtain her soul, and she dies in a state of grace. Mephistopheles now transports Faust back to classical times, where he has a brief affair with Helen of Troy. In the epilogue, Faust is again an old man, now looking forward to death. In spite of the devil’s threats, he prays for forgiveness and is absolved.

The Cast

Elena
 Helen of Troy
Faust
 a learned doctor
Margherita
 
Marta
 Margherita's neighbour
Mefistofele
 the devil
Nereo
 
Pantalis
 Helen's companion
Wagner
 a pupil of Dr Faust

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