Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) was a polymath without genius unlike Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) who was equally (or even more) versatile, but who had genius. As a composer Boito’s reputation rests solely on his opera Mefistofele. It was premiered at La Scala in 1868 under the direction of the composer; he had very little experience as a conductor which didn’t help a greatly flawed opera. Mefistofele was withdrawn after just two performances. As first written the work was enormous; it took 5 and a half hours to perform.
Boito abandoned most of the score and essentially rewrote the opera. The result was a series of scenes rather than a coherent story. The revised score was first performed in Bologna in 1875. It has remained firmly situated in the suburbs of the standard operatic repertory over the subsequent century and a half. Feyodor Chaliapin last performed it at the Met in 1925. It did not return to the great New York House until 1999 when it served as a vehicle for Sam Ramey. He last did it at the Met in 2000 and it has not been done there since then.
Verdi’s reaction to Boito (this was before their later close professional and personal relationship) was: “He lacks spontaneity and melody…It is difficult to say if Boito can give Italy masterpieces. He has a great deal of talent, aspires to originality but the result sounds strange. Yet he has many musical qualities. In view of these tendencies he can more or less succeed with a subject as bizarre and theatrical as Mefistofele.”
George Bernard Shaw during his six year stint as a music critic reacted thus: “Boito’s version (of the Faust story) seems almost as popular as Gounod’s though Gounod’s is a true musical creation whereas Boito has only adapted the existing resources of orchestration and harmony very ably to his libretto. In short,Gounod has set music to Faust, Boito has set Faust to music. The great rolling crashes and echoes of brazen sound in the prelude transport us into illimitable space at once. And the tremendous sonority of the instrumentation at the end with the defiant devil recklessly mocking each climax of grandeur literally makes us all sit up. A good deal of the Brocken scene is ingenious tiddy follol but at innumerable points the music is full of suggestive strokes and colours in sound, happiest sometimes when they are mere instrumentation. The whole work is a curious example of what can be done in opera by an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts, but with ten times the taste and culture of a musician of only ordinary extraordinariness.”
The opera varies in quality from the brilliant (virtually all of the writing for Mefistofele) to the pedestrian (most of the Helen of Troy scene). While the tenor and soprano parts are interesting, the opera survives as a vehicle for a great bass in the title part. Norman Treigle (1927-75) was a singing actor of extraordinary power. Many thought him the greatest singing actor of his time. For reasons clouded by opera house politics he never sang at the Met. His career was grounded at the New York City Opera where Mefistofele was his biggest success. Because of his appearances there he became world renowned. He was the reason the current recording was made in 1973. But he’s dead and Placido Domingo is alive and a world class celebrity. Thus Domingo get top billing on this release despite Treigle’s contract which stipulated that the bass be top billed. No matter they’re both great in their parts as is Montserrat Caballé as both Margherita and Elena.
The young Domingo has so much voice that he almost overpowers Faust’s music. His sound shows why he’s one of the greatest tenors of the past century. But it is Treigle’s impersonation that most holds the attention of today’s listener. Even though his astounding visual impact is obviously lost on a sound recording, his devil is both malignant and fascinating. Here’s his version of the famous whistling aria from the first act. Son lo spirito che nega. Treigle’s life was as intense off the stage as it was on. His biography is entitled Strange Child of Chaos which are the words that Faust says immediately after the end of Son lo spirito.
Julius Rudel’s conducting deserves special attention. It is brilliant. Every nuance and huge sonority is better realized by him than by any other conductor I have heard lead the piece. By itself it’s almost enough reason to buy the album. My next post will present 11 famous basses singing this bravura piece along with its Italian text and an English translation.