“Mefistofele” or “Mephistopheles,” a grand opera in four acts with prologue and epilogue, both text and music by Arrigo Boito, was first presented at La Scala, Milan, in 1868. It is a paraphrase of both parts of Goethe’s Faust, with additional episodes taken from the treatment of the legend by other authorities.
Mephistopheles. Faust. Margaret. Martha. Wagner.
Helen. Faust. Mephistopheles. Pantalis. Nereus.
The prologue takes place in heaven where the mystic choir is heard and Mephistopheles appears and promises to conquer the soul of Faust. There is a chorus of cherubim and final psalmody of the penitents on earth.
The first act opens in the public square at Frankfort, where the students and peasants are celebrating Easter.
Here Faust and Wagner meet Mephistopheles in the guise of a friar. The gray-clad figure follows Faust as he strolls home at the close of the day and tracks him to his laboratory, where it conceals itself. Faust begins to read in his Bible and this brings the fiend forth in horror. He has suddenly assumed the garb of a knight with a black cloak on his arm. He discloses his nature and the object of his visit and the interview is concluded with the signing of the Devil’s contract by Faust. The fiend previously has made plain all the conditions. He will be Faust’s slave on earth but in the hereafter, their parts shall be changed. Says the unhappy man, ” The other life never troubles my thought. If you can grant me but a brief blessed hour wherein to calm all yearning, if you can reveal to me my own heart and the world’s, if I can say once, once to the flying moment; ` stay, stay for thou are lovely,’ then let me perish and the pit may engulf me.”
They are borne away on Mephistopheles’ magic cloak to Margaret’s garden, where Faust makes love to the maiden, Mephistopheles pretending to be infatuated with her mother, Martha. The second scene of the act represents the Witches’ Sabbath on the Brocken, where the evil spirits are making merry. Here Mephistopheles, their king, comes with Faust to receive their homage. Faust is granted a vision of Margaret, haggard and fettered, and resolves to go to her succor.
The third act is laid in the prison, in which Margaret is incarcerated for murdering her new-born child and for giving to her mother, all unwittingly, a sleeping-potion which proved to be a deadly draught. She sits on a heap of straw, singing wildly, her reason half gone. Faust appears and begs her to fly with him. She raves in her madness, asking him why his lips are so cold and telling him the order of the graves he must dig on the morrow, the third to be for herself. But Mephistopheles urges him away just as the dawn appears. As it paints the sky, the soul of Margaret is released and receives salvation.
In the fourth act, the scene changes to classical Greece where Mephistopheles, true to his promise of giving him earthly pleasure in return for his services in hell, allows Faust to make love to Helen of Troy, who conducts him to her bower. In the epilogue, the grandeur of this scene is exchanged for the familiar laboratory of Faust where he reflects on the hollowness of life and finds solace in the thought of heaven, Mephistopheles is again at his side, urging him to go forth in the world with him. Heavenly music comes to his ears and gives him strength to resist. He seizes the Bible and prays for help from above. His prayers are heard and, as he dies, a shower of celestial blossoms falls upon him in benediction.
Boito had worked for a number of years on this opera with the intention of calling it “Faust,” but the appearance in Milan of Gounod’s “Faust” just before it was finished forced the disappointed composer to change the name to ” Mephistopheles.” Later judgment terms it the most original, noble and stately of all the operas founded on Goethe’s poem but its first presentation was a complete failure. The critics at once applied to the composer the most stinging appellation they could devise, ” The Italian Wagner.” Later performances proved more successful and the opera now holds a fairly conspicuous place in the repertory of the opera houses of Italy and France. It has also been given in Germany, England and the United States.
The music of the prologue is considered one of the finest portions of the score, its finale being especially impressive. Faust’s aria, “Dai campi, dai prati” (” From the fields, from meadows “) is one of the lyric moments in the first act and leads to a sonorous proclamation by Mephistopheles, ” Son lo spirito ” (” I’m the spirit”). In the “garden” act, the quartet of Faust, Margaret, Mephistopheles and Martha beginning, “Addio, fuggo” (” Fare-well, Away “) and Mephistopheles’ song over the globe of glass, “Ecco il mondo” (” Here’s the world “) form the more noticeable numbers. The duet of Faust and Margaret in prison, ” Lontano, lontano ” (” Far distant, Far distant “) is of exceptional beauty and is surpassed only in worth and the qualities that make for popularity by the duet of Helen and Pantalis on the night of the classical Sabbath, ” La luna immobile ” (” The changeless queen of night “).