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‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco Il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Three)

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

“The Play’s the Thing!”

Mefistofele Act One, Scene i (Teatro Massimo di Palermo)Mefistofele Act One, Scene i (Teatro Massimo di Palermo)

In the previous background section devoted to the development of the operas Faust, La Damnation de Faust and, quite evidently, Mefistofele, I neglected to mention one other source: that of English playwright, poet and translator Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century morality play Doctor Faustus, which theater artists from Orson Welles to Richard Burton have presented and performed in their inimitable fashion.

“Kit” Marlowe, as he was known by his fellows, was a highly acclaimed Elizabethan figure whose own work greatly influenced those of his closest contemporary, William Shakespeare (both were baptized in the same year of 1564). Not much is known about Marlowe historically, except that he was stabbed to death at age 29, the result of either an earlier brush with the law or a barroom brawl. He remains an elusive contributor to the expanding literature on the subject of Faust and his times.

Portrait of Christopher
Portrait of Christopher “Kit” Marlowe

Be that as it may, Marlowe’s play, a precursor to Goethe’s more comprehensive realization, exists in several forms or quartos, much in the manner as Shakespeare’s works have been handed down to us. While written in blank verse, with some sections given in prose form, Doctor Faustus is nonetheless a profound statement of man’s inherent fallibility and quest for expiation from sin.

Even the tempter himself, here called Mephastophilis (or Mephistophilus), expresses an almost human yearning to spare Faustus the interminable damnation of the inferno:

Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God

And tasted the eternal joy of heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells

In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

(Doctor Faustus, Scene iii)

We may presume some sympathy for the devil on Marlowe’s part. Another Faust-derived piece that I unintentionally overlooked was Ferruccio Busoni’s unfinished opus Doktor Faust, which had its world premiere in Dresden in 1925, a year after the composer’s death (it was completed by one of his students).

Orson Welles in Doctor Faustus (1937), Federal Theatre Project photo
Orson Welles in Doctor Faustus (1937), Federal Theatre Project photo

This version, which took elements from medieval puppet-plays as well as Marlowe and Goethe’s adaptations, is more philosophical in nature, some would say autobiographical; the music is post-Romantic, but not atonal enough to quality as modernistic — it’s oblique, if that is the correct term, and difficult to grasp upon first hearing. On the other hand, the text, which deals more with ideas than with dramatic possibilities, is exceptionally viable as a treatise on existentialism.

The title character, sung by a baritone, is a tormented soul, a stand-in for all artists, driven by twin demons, i.e., his spiritual and intellectual desires, yet deprived (as Marlowe’s Mephisto had been) of “everlasting bliss”; the devil, a high tenor in this case, is more fatalistic in outlook, with a good deal of self-mocking attitude and humor. These are postmodern affectations, to be certain, which has made Busoni’s version perilously complicated to stage.

Despite this reputation, the Metropolitan Opera gave it a brief run back in 2001, with Thomas Hampson and Robert Brubaker in the principal roles, and conductor Philippe Auguin replacing the indisposed James Levine. The Met fared better with its multimedia Damnation of Faust, but as an attempt to expand the repertoire of early twentieth-century operatic items, Doktor Faust was strictly a one-shot.

“The Soft Radiance of Spring”

The young Arrigo Boito at the time of Mefistofele's 1868 premiere
The young Arrigo Boito at the time of Mefistofele‘s 1868 premiere at La Scala, Milan

Let us return forthwith to Boito’s Mefistofele, specifically to the story and music of Act One, scene i. After the bombast and religiosity of the Prologue, the curtain goes up on an Easter Sunday celebration in Frankfort-am-Main, Germany. We are in the presence of a flower-strung plain or open field. Peasants, students, maidens, churchgoers, lads and lasses, soldiers and the like, frolic and dance about, enjoying the early spring season. Bells peel forth from a local church, signaling the end of the service.

In the midst of the pageantry, a town crier and trumpeter appear. The crier unfurls a bulky parchment for all to see. The trumpeter plays a flourish on his horn, which attracts the attention of passersby, among them the aged philosopher Faust and his pupil Wagner. Drinks are served by pretty barmaids who have kindly provided refreshment for the occasion.

A friar comes into view. Covered in solemn gray from head to foot, his face is hidden under a hood. His movements are meandering and bizarre, like that of a hungry serpent on the prowl for its next victim. A somber theme sounds in the orchestra as the friar crosses the field. Some in the crowd bow and pay homage to the mysterious figure, others avoid him like the plague. Upon the friar’s exit, the crowd refocuses on a cavalcade of riders. It’s the Prince Elector and his retinue, recently come from Mass. They wave and cheer to the crowd as the chorus comes to a potent climax. All disperse for the moment, leaving Faust with his student.

The old man remarks on the loveliness of the valley and how the warmth of the sun has cheered and brightened all around it (“Al soave raggiar di primavera”). Wagner, on the other hand, is content to stroll along with his master. “The common folk bore me,” he notes, after Faust has welcomed the sight of “happy citizens in their festive best.” These same citizens bring forth a maypole and place it in the center of the field. They start to dance and sing around it in time to a three-quarter beat: “Juhé! Juhé! Juheisa, heisa hé, ah, hé!”

A lively tarantella-like dance rhythm, which listeners may recognize as a theme reused by composer Leoncavallo for his opera Pagliacci, soon plays itself out and comes to a swift close as night begins to fall on the countryside. The crowd disperses, leaving Faust and Wagner to fend for themselves. The doctor muses on the coming twilight, but Wagner calls it the “hour of ghosts” which haunt the evening air; they cast their nets over the feet of unsuspecting men (such as themselves). “Andiam,” he cries, “let us be off!”

Ferruccio Furlanetto as the Gray Friar (Teatro Massimo, 2008)
Ferruccio Furlanetto as the Gray Friar (Teatro Massimo, 2008)

Wagner notices that Faust has been looking intently in the distance. “What is it you are staring at?” he wonders aloud. “Do you not see that gray friar, wandering in the field?” Faust asks him. “I noticed,” replies Wagner, “but I see nothing strange in his appearance.” The scoring recalls the scherzo istrumentale from the Prologue, i.e., Satan’s wager with the Almighty: the flighty toots of the piccolo mimic the chirp of crickets — again, as in Mefistofele’s mock sermon, “Ave, Signor!”

“Sharpen your eyes,” Faust admonishes. “Look closely! He moves about in spirals, making his way closer and closer to us! Oh, if my eyes do not deceive me, he leaves a trail of fiery footsteps!”

Faust is in a panic at the sight of the friar. Wagner tries to reassure him, insisting that he is imagining things; there’s nothing to fear, the friar is on his way, merely passing by. Faust becomes distraught: “La spira si stringe! Ei n’é vicin… Ah!” (“The circle is tightening! He draws near… Ah!”). The friar approaches. He is face to face with Faust, his features covered by the dark hood. Wagner comes between the two, looks closely at the friar and, convinced he poses no threat, comments: “É un frate grigio, non é uno spettro” – “He’s but a gray friar, and not a specter.”

The friar extends his hand outward. Wagner gives the supplicant some coins and motions for him to be on his way. The friar furtively takes his leave but stops at the foot of the meadow.

Voices in the distance recount the choral number from earlier in the scene. Faust keeps gazing over his shoulder, back towards the friar. In turn, the friar glances back at Faust. They are at opposite ends of the field. Again, the friar stretches forth his palm with the coins that Wagner gave him. Turning his palm over, he lets the coins fall, one by one, onto the ground. This gesture frightens Faust. The scene grows dusky and gloomy. Wagner takes his master away. But the friar crosses the stage and silently follows after them.

There is a brief interlude as the lower strings play a slow theme to the accompanying change of scenery.

“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful!”

The setting for scene ii is Faust’s study. It is evening. Unable to sleep, Faust is at his desk, reading the Bible by candlelight. He contemplates the beauty of the pasture he had earlier returned from, in the moving aria, “Dai campi, dai prati, che innonda la notte” (“From the fields, from the meadows, bathed now in the darkness of night”). Toscanini’s favorite tenor, Aureliano Pertile, made a specialty out of this air. He would alter his voice in order to give the impression of an old man near the end of his life. Gigli, too, was a natural for this number’s slow and steady buildup — a supreme study in legato and gorgeous portamento singing.

He is about to settle down to meditate further, when an unholy shout comes up from the alcove. It is the gray friar who has followed Faust to his home. Startled at first, Faust cries out that he is willing to share his cell with the visitor if only he would cease his bellowing. The music turns dark and foreboding with a heavy undercurrent of the organ’s pedal notes. The friar squirms about the room. Faust is taken aback, but recovers his wits by raising the Bible overhead, invoking King Solomon for protection from the evil spirit:

Furia, demonio o spettro,

Sarai mio!

Sulla tua raza è onnipotente

Il segno di Salomon!

Fury, demon or ghost,

You shall be mine!

Over your cursed race

The sign of Solomon is all powerful!

At this, the gray friar reveals himself: it is Mefistofele, now dressed as a dashing cavalier (in some productions, the Devil remains a devil). The friar’s habit becomes a large, black cloak in his skeletal arms. “Che baccano! Messer, mi comandate!” (“What a racket! Sir, I am yours to command!”) are Mefistofele’s first words to the philosopher. Faust’s first words to the Devil are: “So this was the seed that lurked inside the friar’s shell?” In other words, was this what he was afraid of, a haughty nobleman? Faust laughs at the joke. “What is your name?” he inquires. “The question is without merit,” Mefistofele responds, “from someone who believes not in words but in the essence of things.” A fair retort, wouldn’t you say?

Mefistofele (Ildar Abdrazakov) posing his bargain to Faust (Ramon Vargas), in San Francisco's 2013 staging
Mefisto (Ildar Abdrazakov) poses his bargain to Faust (Ramon Vargas), in San Francisco’s 2013 staging of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele

Again, we hear Lucifer’s chirpy little theme in the orchestra. Faust comes back with a worthy riposte of his own: “In you, sir, names have the virtue of revealing that same essence. So tell me, then, who are you really?” Horns now accompany Mefistofele’s weighty declaration that he is a living part of that force, or power if you will, that perpetually thinks Evil and does Good. His voice plummets to the nether regions of his range, clearly hinting to his host where that power comes from. Faust’s natural curiosity is awakened: “And what does this strange play on words mean?” he asks.

In reply, the music turns ferocious and forceful, a whirlwind of rapid string-playing, a howling horn section (like the sound of barking dogs), and frightening cymbal crashes. This is where Mefistofele reveals his true self to the unsuspecting doctor. It is the famous solo number, “Son lo Spirito che nega” – “I am Spirit that denies,” a concert-hall favorite of bassos, profound or otherwise, from every country and nationality: Italians, Frenchmen, Welshmen, Russians, Bulgarians, Germans, Americans, Canadians, Slavs, and Latins have reveled in this spectacular piece of showmanship. Everything but the kitchen sink (and then some) has been thrown at this incredibly theatrical scene: piercing whistles, demonic shouts of defiance, eye-rolling, arm-twisting, gravity-defying gymnastics, and pyrotechnic light shows — whatever directorial sleight-of-hand is available to grab the imagination.

Recorded extracts by Tancredi Pasero, with his fearsomely rounded tones, characteristic vibrato, wonderfully rolled r’s, and perfectly placed Italian diction; a 1912 version of Fyodor Chaliapin, with that insinuating voice of his dripping with bile and venom; a later one with Nazzareno de Angelis, with his robust, fuller-sounding interpretation and outgoing personality; and an early demo of Boris Christoff’s artistry, with that sly, sinuous quality and marvelously thick accent (scary in itself) as well as assorted eccentricities of this singer’s trade, are all singular examples of the kind of over-the-top vocalism no longer available to modern-day audiences.

Son lo Spirito che nega

Sempre tutto; l’astro, il fior.

Il mio ghigno e la mia bega

Turban gli ozzi al Creator.

Voglio il Nulla e del Creato

La ruina universal.

I am the Spirit that denies

That forever negates all.

The stars, the flowers.

My sneer and the mere thought of me

Continually disturbs the Creator

I long for Nothingness

and the ruin of all Creation

“I laugh and I blow forth this lone syllable: No! I roar, I destroy, I tempt, and I hiss: No! I bite, I seize, I whistle, and whistle, and whistle!” Mefistofele snorts and bellows his tirade to the rafters. In our day, bass-baritones Norman Treigle, and his successor at City Opera, Samuel Ramey, have at least equaled if not surpassed their recorded counterparts in this number. And, too, the likes of Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ildar Abdrazakov, Erwin Schrott, and Eric Owens have undertaken the daunting task of shedding the gray friar’s habit in this potentially star-making turn, a surefire audience-pleaser in every way.

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Three)
“Son lo Spirito che nega” (“I am the Spirit that denies”) – Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefisto (SF, 2013)

Having witnessed the Devil’s raw show of power, Faust expresses his view of the matter: “Strano figlio del Caos” (“Strange child of Chaos”). Now if Faust wishes to call him friend, or, if he prefers, his servant or slave, Mefistofele will gladly accept. And in return, what are Lucifer’s conditions? Oh, there’s plenty of time to take care of that. “No,” Faust persists, “name the conditions, and speak plainly.” Once more, the music reflects the darkness and foreboding of the Devil’s proposition: here, on earth, without rest, Mefistofele vows to do Faust’s bidding; but below, you see, the situation will be reversed.

Faust shows little concern for the life to come. But if he can be granted an hour’s repose in which to calm his weary soul; if the Devil can reveal to his thoughts and person the world as it is; and if Faust happens to remark in that fleeting moment, “Stay, thou art beautiful,” then let him die in peace. “And let Hell swallow me up!” he cries. “Very well!” shouts Mefisto. They shake hands on the deal. A catchy tune in the form of a galop, “Fin da stanotte, nell’orgie ghiotte del mio messer, da camerier lo servirò” (“From this night on, in the wild orgies of my lord, like a valet I will serve you”), is sung as a duet for tenor and bass. It ends on an optional high note for Faust.

“So, when do we begin?” he asks excitedly. “Right away!” is the Devil’s reaction to his query. At this point in some productions, Faust is transformed into a handsome youth, while in others he remains an old man until Act Two. Still anxious and impatient to get started, Faust peppers the Devil with questions: how are we getting there, where are the horses and carriages, and the coachmen to drive them?

Spreading his black cloak on the ground, Mefistofele proclaims their impending mode of travel: by air! We get — or should get — the feeling of flight in Boito’s buoyant score, the main theme of which (“Pur ch’io distenda questo mantel / Noi viaggeremo sull’aria”) will come back during the final scene of the Epilogue. The walls of the study miraculously melt away, as clouds appear on the horizon. The Devil’s cloak lifts the participants to the sky and away from the confines of the room. The curtain falls.

End of Act One.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

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