Born in February 1842, by the time Arrigo Boito turned 26, he was already a man on a mission. Impatient with the entrenched conservatism of Italian opera – his disparaging comments had irritated the great Verdi – he had looked to Germany for inspiration, specifically Wagner, whose operas had cast their futuristic spell upon the young Italian composer.
On 5 March 1868, Boito was ready to make his own personal statement. Brimming with ambition, he had taken the German writer Goethe’s epic drama Faust and written a libretto based on it. The opera that resulted, Mefistofele – about a man who sells his soul to the devil for a life of selfish indulgence on earth – was set to premiere at Milan’s La Scala theatre, the epicentre of operatic activity in Italy. Would Boito’s new work find favour with the notoriously judgemental Milanese audience?
Before the performance had even reached its conclusion, Boito knew that it would not. Unease had gradually accumulated during the first half of the opera, and by Act IV the audience was openly hostile and noisy, drowning out the music. ‘I couldn’t hear a note of it,’ one friend of Boito’s reported, as Mefistofele degenerated into what one commentator wrote ‘may have been the most memorable fiasco’ in the Teatro alla Scala’s history.
Why? What had caused Boito’s opera to fail so badly? The fact that Boito himself conducted probably didn’t help; a more experienced conductor would have lent more impact and cohesion to the performance. It’s also possible that the bunch of friends Boito organised to cheer on Mefistofele on the evening helped to rile those less well-disposed towards the opera.
But undoubtedly the major factor in the tanking of Mefistofele was the work itself. It was, for one thing, Wagnerian in length – five hours-plus, with a finishing time past midnight. Boito’s idiom was also new, laced with the advanced chromatic harmonies of Wagner. And the opera’s unconventional structure – the Prologue alone is a half-hour long, and symphonic in conception – wilfully cocked a snook at the more strait-laced, aria-led style of the Italian tradition.
The result was general shock, incomprehension and outrage among Mefistofele’s first-night audience. The theatre’s management panicked, splitting the second performance of the opera over two evenings. But it made no difference: the La Scala cognoscenti had already decided that Mefistofele was dead on arrival. Speculating on Boito’s future, the publisher Ricordi pulled no punches. ‘You will be a poet, a distinguished scholar,’ he wrote, ‘but never a composer of operas!’
Ricordi was in some ways right. For the next half-century Boito struggled with a second opera, Nerone, which was never completed. Redemption of a sort came as he turned his literary skills to libretto writing, collaborating with Verdi on the Shakespearian masterpieces Otello and Falstaff.
Boito was not finished with Mefistofele, however. He drastically shortened the opera, cutting the more avant-garde sections and adding some new music. This slimmed-down version gradually gained acceptance, and by 1880 had been successfully performed in Italy, England and America.
It is still performed today, though less often than it might be for a work described by one writer as ‘stylistically the most original Italian opera of the 19th century’. The need for an outstanding bass in the title role and a classy tenor as Faust are impediments, perhaps. But Mefistofele, if not equal to the best of Verdi, is rich in drama and has much beautiful music in it – ‘a remarkable work whose flaws are worth the successes of most other operas’, as one New York Times critic put it.
Recommended recording: Samuel Ramey, Vincenzo La Scola, Michèle Crider, Eleonora Jankovic, Ernesto Gavazzi; Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/ Riccardo Muti (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 68284 2 DDD)