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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Preparing for the Munich premiere in October I have found myself often thinking about Boito’s Mefistofele and its musical significance. This score was premiered in 1868 in Milan and was intact, the top of the musical creative world of Arigo Boito. He was a very interesting person, a painter, writer, musician, librettist and his brother was as well a known figure as a highly exclaimed architect.

The first thing about Boito’s Faust is the fact that this piece did not become a part of the “popular” 19th century Italian operas. To this fact I would like to attend in what could be called a “philosophical” approach and avoid the historical or musical possible reasons. I find it extremely interesting that a piece that is so dark and unique remains an “underdog” in between the famous Mefistofeles as the ones by Gounod and Berlioz. The idea that a piece about Mefisto does not become “famous” or popular is something I find very suitable. I will explain: The idea behind the satanic figure cannot become mainstream by its definition. It is in his character, Mefisto’s, to be the underdog and appear once in a while when needed. This piece as an entity expresses more than its musical content the diabolic characters of its hero. I find this really exciting. In a way, a real piece about Mefisto, cannot become famous it has to stay infamous. The antihero must stay there in order to not lose its magic. As we all know, something we see everyday or know very well stops being mysterious, and we can all agree that Mefisto is and will always remain the mysterious figure. I will stretch this idea a bit more and say that what makes Faust Gounod so famous and loved is exactly the problem with its idea of Mefisto. Because if Gounod would have succeeded in creating a real dark, rough, robust Mefisto, this piece would not have become so famous, but serve very well the idea of Mefisto. At this point one should ask: “Did Boito write the piece already in this idea? Did he want his piece to stay unpopular in order to transmit the Mefisto massage? Did he choose that? “
The answer would be, sadly enough, no. Boito, like all human beings, wanted the success of his piece, and still does. The artist, despite what he often says, does not want to work for his own entertainment. Boito tried his best to write a beautiful opera full of colors and choirs, great arias and scenes, but eventually Mefisto achieved his own. As the proverb says: “Man plans and God laughs. “ As we all know Goethe called it Faust and not Mefistofeles which might show that Goethe knew that the man might seem as the Star (Faust) but Mefisto is the Director.

Second point to be made about this score is its very interesting and original “sound effect”. Officially, as the score indicates, the hole first scene- prolog is performed with the chorus on the back stage, which immediately brings out some huge problems to confront: A 15 minutes choral piece without an evident chorus is technically, musically and dramatically challenging. Basically as most of the old productions show, this was just ignored and the choir was on stage frontal singing giving a huge satisfaction to the musicians and the public. But what did Boito want indicating that the choirs should not be seen?
As all great minds, Boito didn’t care about reality. He wanted his Paradise voices to come from the sky and didn’t really care about technical issues. I adore this way of thinking and I find it extremely inspirational that today, more than hundred years after, thank to technological developments we can actually achieve what Boito at 1868 imagined. Like great artists he asked questions and left the answers to come years after or as Goethe puts it in Faust: “One never goes so far as when one doesn't know where one is going.”

I will leave it to each one of us to figure out the symbolic significance of such theatrical achievement, but I would like to talk about the next scene, the entrance of Mefisto. I think that Boito could not have written it better: The holy prayer, the huge human impact of the prolog is being almost childishly compared with the cunning, small, witty music of Mefisto. Based on the interval of the perfect fifth which is the fountain of western music, it is grotesquely confronted with the most infamous character- Mefisto. Or maybe the opposite: Boito chose the perfect fifth as Mefisto’s music in order to show that Mefisto is a part of us, is and will always be there. Mefisto is the basic human feeling or thought as well as it is the most complicated and manipulative. Just to give you a hint of Boito’s cultural images, I will jump few bars ahead where Mefisto sings: “Ave Signor” mocking the huge prolog we have just heard, underneath him one can hear a very strange chord played by the dark trombones, a chord which is based on the interval of the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) which is historically related to the Devil. What is also known as the Diabolic interval (giving its highest interpretation was Wagner in the Tristan chord (Wagner) the Tritone was a forbidden interval in the beginning of western-religious music. It was suspected as an immoral interval, and yet Boito in a fantastic original theatrical gesture puts this immoral interval together with Mefisto’s words: Ave Signor. If this is not enough, Mefisto also sings the note C which is again, the base of Tonal system. In just three bars, Boito describes to us the whole issue around the enigmatic figure of Mefisto his relations to human life and history.

The marvelous world of theatre does not stop to make me curious and intrigue me. Pieces like Mefistofeles are necessary in our modern times theatre even more than before. We must embrace new pieces (or newly revived) and make the theatre the place where people think and listen, watch and imagine. Theatre is not a museum and we must not treat it as one, our goal as artists as well as public is to fight passivity. Passivity as public who must take an active part as listener and thinker, and us the artists must always look for new ways to create and read the pieces. We must not sit back and enjoy the glory of the past as it is very dangerous, the past was rarely glorious and we must not automatically celebrate it as one.
Important theaters like Munich, must be the center of today’s artistic world and by opening the season with Mefistofeles, the theatre shows that it is a major player in modern and active creative cultural life.