If we recall that Arigo Boito proved to be the librettist Verdi had always dreamt of and the octogenarian came out of retirement to set Boito’s libretti to “Otello” and “Falstaff” to music, then we might not be too surprised to find that the libretto Boito prepared for his own version of “Faust” is the best of the lot.
Well aware of the dangers of trying to include a good deal of both parts of Goethe’s epic, the composer/librettist still presented the first-night audience with six hours of theater that had them in a very belligerent mood by the end of it all. That was in 1868 and by 1875 he had shortened the work to the 2.5 hours or so that it now takes to perform. I would dearly love to read at least the original libretto, which is said to have been destroyed. And despite all this, what we have is still the closest to Goethe’s “Faust” among all the attempts to mold it into an opera.
It begins with a Prologue in Heaven. After a long orchestral introduction, highlighted by trumpet calls from the various upper reaches of the theater, you hear a chorus of voices offering praises to the Lord. (What you actually see all through this is up to the director.) Then there is a mocking scherzo for a few bars and Mefistofele appears to have a chat with “Il Signor.” Immediately we are aware of why Boito titled his work after this character and not Faust. Not so much to avoid confusion with the Gounod work, but to let us know where the emphasis is to lie in this work.
Boito’s Italian practically translates the German at this point word for word. The bet is made and after a chorus of cherubim drives the Devil from the scene, the Prologue ends with an extended chorus of some length, leaving the director with the problem of offering something visual for several minutes of great choral work. The City Opera of New York gave us a laserlight show; the video with Samuel Ramey in the title role gives us shots of clouds and plaster cherubs and angels. Recordings, of course, do not have this problem.
The scene before the City Gates has a good deal of complex chorus work, very much as in Gounod; and the plot is advanced not a jot all through it, except for Faust’s spotting a mysterious Friar stalking him. In the next scene, we are on familiar territory as the Bet is made. But unlike the trivial conditions of the Gounod’s librettists, here we have a very Goethean Faust demanding his “ora di riposo”—the one moment of contentment that will make him stop his striving—in return for his soul. We also have the magnificent “whistling aria” for Mefistofeles, “I am the Spirit that denies,” that puts a very intellectual tone to this script totally lacking in any of the other versions.
There is nothing leading up to the Garden Scene as things stand now. Faust woos Margherite (as she is spelled here), Marta tries to seduce Mefisto, and they all end up roaring with laughter. As far as libretto goes, the most interesting part of the scene is Faust’s reply to the young girl’s question, “Do you believe in God?” The subsequent Walpurgis Night sequence has a good deal of very difficult chorus work that tends to last beyond the term of its musical interest; but it certainly is a good deal more atmospheric than the corresponding music in the Gounod scene. And there is no ballet.
The scene in Margherite’s prison allows her a very effective aria about her lost child and lost love; and Boito’s unorthodox harmonies are just right to show her state of mind and the situation in general. Further, they supply the greatest possible contrast with the music depicting the “Classical Walpurgis Night.” The act opens with a soprano/mezzo duet of great beauty, comparable to the one in “Tales of Hoffmann.” This is where the ballet comes, but it is of little musical interest and Helen of Troy (that should be of Sparta, of course) is given a long narrative aria that sounds as if it were taken from Berlioz’ “The Trojans.” The love duet between tenor and soprano is quite lovely, blending into a full chorus.
The final act shows the death and redemption of Faust in which the Devil and Angelic Choir are given some powerful moments. Unhappily Faust’s Moment gets lost among the counterpoint and audiences might not realize what is actually going on even with a libretto to guide them. The final moments return to the majesty of the Prologue in Heaven, but this time we have Mefisto whistling his defiance at the forces of Good.
What are most interesting are the title character and his musical treatment. His “I am the Spirit that denies” begins each stanza with a snarling tempo and ends with a piercing whistle. Both the words and musical treatment of this and his later aria, “Behold the world,” point forward to the character of Iago as expressed by Boito in the interpolated Credo: “I believe in a cruel God.” Evil is always easier to portray on a stage than is goodness, as most actors readily admit; and the worst role of all to play is a good Priest or a pure maiden. They tend to get somewhat boring. This is probably why the Devil gets all the really powerful material in this work.
However Faust’s arias, short as they are, are very moving; and Margherite is considerably more lively in her short scene in the garden and more complex in her prison scene than her French opposite. If you have never heard this opera, please give it a try on the London recording with Siepi if you can find it. I have not heard the one with Ramey, but it cannot be better than the older version.
I highly recommend the DVD on the Kultur label with Ramey. The “concept” of this production is that the universe is a theater–and this works beautifully at the end of the Prologue in Heaven, as you can see for yourself.