Boito’s Mefistofele which just finished its run at the San Francisco Opera is one of the oddest works in the standard operatic repertory even though its on its fringe. Its creator Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) was one of art’s great examples of the capacities and limitations of a man of talent, erudition, and skill who lacks genius. The opera is one of only two written in the 50 years between Verdi’s Nabucco and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut that is in the repertory and is not by Verdi. The other, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda was set to a libretto by Boito. Mefistofele captures the essence of Goethe’s Faust better than any other work for the musical stage. But it is the work of an extraordinary dilettante. Given the right staging and performance it can be very effective.
Mefistofele was premiered in 1868. After several revisions in the 1870s it found its modest place in opera’s left field. Boito spent the last 50 years of his life unsuccessfully trying to finish his second opera Nerone. It exists in a four act version, the fifth never completed by the blocked Boito. Perhaps Boito’s greatest problem was that there was an accountant inside him who manipulated him like a hand puppet. He had a long affair with the great actress Eleonora Duse, but tried to conceal it out of some bizarre sense on 19th century decorum. Everyone knew about it, but Boito sneaked around like a guilty bean counter. He never married, lived with his brother and his wife, and was equally furtive about his next mistress. He found his raison d’être in writing the librettos for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff – a task that required talent, erudition, and skill, but not genius.
Here are a 15 photos (including the one above the title) of the recent San Francisco production of Boito’s opera taken by the renowned photographer Robert Cahen.