Arrigo Boito’s “Streben”

Though the innovations of Arrigo Boito were initially met with resistance, his work, “Mefistofele”, left a profound influence on operatic composers.


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Arrigo Boito defied classification.

The Padua-born composer-librettist, who was almost dismissed from the Milan Conservatory for his alleged lack of musical talent, found immediate recognition in the domain of letters and wrote essays under the pseudonym Tobia Gorrio. His poetic talent and a composer’s education made him the ideal librettist, but it also led to the creative and personal tug-of-war that would shape his artistic life. The recognition and validation awarded to Boito the composer would not always equal that of Boito the librettist. Today, he is most encountered on the operatic scene as the author of the libretti for Verdi’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff.

It was the work of an innovator in the realm of literature that inspired Boito’s highest achievement in the marriage of his two worlds of letters and music: Goethe’s Faust—Part One (1808) and Part Two (1832). In Goethe’s work, Boito encountered das Streben—the Faustian concept of striving—a creative endeavoring that parallels the universe’s own constant striving of forces. Goethe’s Streben provided a cosmic mandate dictated by these forces to the earthly creator: the poet, the writer, the artist. Adherence to that mandate reflected a new, different kind of faith, born in a constant one-on-one dialogue with universal forces. This notion spoke to Boito’s own creative ferment and drove him to push the boundaries of the lyric art, leading to the creation of his opera, Mefistofele.

Among the three 19th century operatic treatments of Goethe’s FaustLa damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz, Faust by Charles Gounod, and Boito’s Mefistofele—it is Boito’s adaptation that remains the most faithful to the original and, like the original, it became an agent of reform. Goethe’s epic reflects a re-envisioning of modern man and redemption as the climactic finale of a life devoted to creative striving. Boito translated this evolutionary spirit into the operatic art. He broke with tradition and provoked the public through innovative musical and dramatic elements. He also incorporated Part Two of Faust into the opera, which Berlioz and Gounod had omitted.

Boito wanted to develop a modern audience within an art form that had, not that long before, fueled the ideals of the Italian Risorgimento but that, post-unification, appeared to be stagnant and trapped into formulae and rigid audience expectations. A relatively popular form of entertainment, opera had become a product whose consumers needed to be kept happy and safe within familiar musical structures. Boito understood that all facets of performance would contribute to promoting his unique ideas and was very detailed in his manual of staging, scenery, and costume recommendations—Disposizione scenica.

These visual aspects of performance, even when they deviated from Boito’s instructions, have often been reinterpreted to great effect by stage directors. Who can forget the iconic 1989 Robert Carsen production at the San Francisco Opera with bass Samuel Ramey in the title role?

That mise-en-scène is essentially a show within a show and featured Ramey’s Mefistofele as stage director, conductor, and producer of the whole performance. The scenery was bordered onstage by loges on several levels from which angels and devils watched the unfolding of the plot as spectators in an opera house.

Mefistofele directs the painting of scenery, he conducts the chorus, he hooks Faust to a chord to make him fly. He acts as the driving force of the entire production. He creates. It is easy to envision this Mefistofele as Boito’s avatar, fully engaged in all aspects of his opera from music and libretto to stage directions and scenery design.

Disappointed by Gounod’s Faust, Boito intended to remedy what he believed to be a one-dimensional approach to Goethe’s play that, like Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, ended in Faust’s damnation. Neither the Berlioz nor the Gounod opera had delved into the complexities of Goethe’s epic, reducing the plot to a love story with a moral at the end. Wagner and Debussy criticized Gounod’s oeuvre for its depiction of Faust as the stereotypical operatic lover rather than a thinker, an explorer, a seeker, and a human being who grapples with the meaning and limits of his existence.

The preference for the moral ending in Gounod’s Faust can be attributed to the censorship-regulated artistic climate of the Second Empire in France and its influences on audience expectations of moral and religious justice. While the Faust character was regarded as a model of human complexity, his salvation could never be condoned. Such fear of provocative content, though, did not deter Boito. With Mefistofele, he became the first Italian composer to write both music and libretto for an opera.

Mefistofele’s premiere at La Scala in 1868 was a spectacular failure replete with fights between a public divided into Boito’s supporters and traditionalists hostile to the composer’s claim that Italian opera needed to be rejuvenated. This first Mefistofele—literally very close to Goethe’s play, excessively long, and very abstract in certain sections—proved overwhelming for the audience. After deletions and additions of more pieces in the traditional grand opera style, Boito’s second Mefistofele premiered successfully in 1875 and—with a few more revisions for Venice in 1876, it became a part of the repertoire.

While conceding to the need to respect tradition, this revised version contains enough innovative material—the “Prologue in Heaven” in particular—to indicate a venture beyond the boundaries of the operatic art form. Progressions of tonalities and chords, shaping of musical phrases, a certain drive and flow in the orchestral music, complexities of dissonance/consonance tensions, and resolutions—or lack thereof—anticipate later operatic works of the verismo period such as Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.

Boito’s originality of the music alternates with sections reminiscent of the melodious, vibrant, occasionally playful music of Donizetti—the initial duet between Faust and Margherita evokes the light lyricism of L’elisir d’amore—and of Verdi, especially from works like Macbeth, Il trovatore, and Un ballo in maschera. Whether Boito’s emulation of crowd-pleasing musical hallmarks was conscious or not, his creation is an unusual, sometimes dueling, at other times conciliatory alternation between tradition and novelty.

In Mefistofele, operatic tradition encounters a new world. Like Goethe, Boito understood this encounter not only as a prerequisite for artistic evolution, but also as the personal striving of the artist to surpass creative limitations. Forward thinking, he reached across time, cultures, and art forms to partner with the German poet and to translate that partnership—and its revolutionary spirit—into music.

Boito lived Goethe’s Streben.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the books “The Don Carlos Enigma,” “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.