Mefistofele is an opera in Italian written and composed in 1876 by Arrigo Boito. The libretto is based on Goethe's Faust and is divided into: prologue, four acts and epilogue. The first public performance took place in Venice on May, 13th 1876.
Arrigo Boito originally planned to call the opera "Faust" and to structure it in two sections like Goethe's original but eventually decided against it, partly in deference to Gounod's eponymous opera. For the libretto, he used scenes from Goethe's Faust I and Faust II, translating entire portions of this mighty work almost literally into Italian.
The story is the now classic tale of the dangerously curious Faust who traded his soul in exchange for the diabolical assistance of Mefistofele (Mephistopheles in English), and thus lost the love (and life) of Margherita before eventually finding the path to redemption. (see full synopsis below)
The characters are:
Although, to my humble opera amateur taste, this opera is overall a rather minor one in the international repertoire, it does contain one of the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful aria ever written... And you might have heard it before, even if opera has never been in your center of musical interest... Actually, if you had any taste for "noisy, degenerate musical noise" around the mid-90's, chances are you have heard it, unbeknownst to you.
Allow me to digress and tell you how I have anyway:
As a kid living in the early 80's in rather remote parts of the world due to my parent's fancy for exotic travels and humanitarian work combined, my musical experience was strictly limited to my parent's tastes in music, which is to say: it was limited. My parents did not have horribly bad taste in music (as far as I can tell even now), they were just oblivious to most stuff done after the turn of the century (and I'm not even sure which century this was)... A few Beatles for my mother, some modern jazz and one Pink Floyd LP for my father, were their farthest incursions into the second half of the century.
As much as I'd like to say that my independence of thought and avid curiosity prompted me to rebel against this blatant demonstration of parental closed-mindedness, that would not be accurate. In fact, I was pretty much happy with it and at the age of ten, was a full-fledged music nerd who knew close to nothing about the mere existence of stuff made with 20th century instruments. Not really like I would know the names and titles of all Gregorian chants and dead German guys my father would keep playing, either (no: not talking about Kraftwerk). Usually I'd just be running around, playing with lemurs and finding inventive ways to drown in the Indian Ocean nearby while my parents would do their best Karen Blixen impression, chilling after dinner to the aforementioned music.
One record, though, did once send me in what would be the first of a long series of music-induced highs throughout my life... Another musical epiphany of similar scale, but much different style, happened to me around 1993, when the infectious melody of Underworld's Rez found my ear somewhere in the middle of Black Rock Desert at dusk time and nearly made me weep from emotion (may I add, importantly enough given the location, that this episode happened during one of the rare moment where the author of this node was under no chemical influence whatsoever).
But this first overwhelmingly emotional encounter with music was due to an incredibly aching aria sung by some woman in Italian on a record whose name my seven year old memory unfortunately decided to discard. None of my enquiries a few years later ever yielded any result and I was just starting to think this childhood memory of mine had probably been caused by the ingestion of some weird local berries or something...
Flash forward a few years later, after quite a radical musical evolution, I took on a semi-professional occupation of knob twisting and sound tweaking in London, playing around with sounds I did not even know existed five years before. That's when a friend of mine brings me an "insanely wicked" white label of a track made by some guy called Rollo, soon to become the prominent member of one of the most influential dance act of the 90s. The track was called "Drifting Away" and was featured on an LP called Reverence by the group known as Faithless. It was a pretty decent eerie techno track, but more important: it featured a few seconds of an amazingly pure aria, eventually blending into electronic music... An air I had kept in my head for so long I could still hum it along...
Well, the aria is called "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" and belongs to the third act of Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (the version featured on the Faithless track is performed by Penny Shaw).
Here is the full text, sung by Margherita in a soprano register (see synopsis for details):
L'altra notte in fondo al mare
Il mio bimbo hanno gittato,
Or per farmi delirare dicon ch'io
L'aura è fredda,
Il carcer fosco,
E la mesta anima mia
Come il passero del bosco
Vola, vola, vola via.
Ah! Pietà di me!
In letargico sopore
E' mia madre addormentata,
E per colmo dell'orrore dicon ch'io
L'aura è fredda,
Il carcer fosco...
Here is a very approximate literal translation of the above (please bear with my less than perfect master of the Italian language and do not hesitate to suggest corrections):
The other night at the bottom of the ocean
my little boy was lying
or in order to drive me mad, they told me
he has drowned.
Dawn is fresh,
the cell gloomy,
and my spirits,
such a sparrow in the woods,
flies, flies, flies away.
Ah! Pity me!
Into a lethargic sleep
I lulled my mother,
and, crowning horror, they say
that I poisoned her.
Dawn is fresh,
the cell gloomy...
Synopsis and incipits
PROLOGUE In Heavens. Angels and cherubim sing for the glory of the Eternal One. The Fallen Angel Mefistofele (bass) brags about mortals' lack of spiritual strength and mockingly complains about the lack of fair game in tempting them ("Ave, Signor"). The angels put him up to the challenge of leading to damnation Faust, a philosopher noticeable for his insatiable thirst for knowledge ("Il pi bizzarro pazzo / Ch'io mi conosca;"). Mefistofele accepts and the praise to the Lord resume.
ACT I In Frankfurt, on Easter Sunday. While observing Easter festivities and marveling at the beauty of the world ("Dai campi, dai prati") with his pupil, Wagner, the old doctor Faust (tenor) notices a monk following them. Later at night, the monk shows up, interrupting Faust's studies and revealing himself as Mefistofele ("Son lo spirito che nega sempre"). After some discussion, the usual deal is struck: Faust receive promise of an opulent life on Earth and some answers to his spiritual interrogations in exchange for a measly engagement to burn in hell till the end of time.
ACT II In some garden, near Margherita's house. A magically rejuvenated Faust meets up with his sweetheart Margherita (soprano) while Mefistofele entertains her widowed neighbour Marta. In order to get some privacy, Faust has Margherita serve her mother some sleeping potion before trying to win her heart ("Colma il tuo coro d'un palpito") in a declaration of love abruptly interrupted by Mefistofele and Marta's returning from their stroll.
During a witche's sabath, Mefistofele shows off his scorn and hatred for humanity ("Ecco il mondo"), while Faust has a vision of Margherita, in chains and about to be executed.
ACT III In Jail, a delirious Margherita awaits her execution while trying to make sense of the accusations of drowning her baby and poisoning her mother laid upon her ("
L'altra notte in fondo al mare": see above). She refuses to follow Faust and Mefistofele, who have came to rescue her, and chooses to stay there and die while praying for her redemption ("Spunta l'aurora pallida").
ACT IV In ancient Greece, Illiade character Elena hears Faust daydreamt plea to be led to some magical place out of the devil's reach. Elena describes the horrors of the sack of Troy. He tells her she embodies all his ideals in beauty and purity ("Forma ideal purissima"). They sing in unison the force of their mysterious love.
EPILOGUE Faust, again an old man, understands the vacuity of his quest for earthly experience and the importance of returning to a more spiritual path. Despite Mefistofele's last efforts to regain his ascendant and finding support in his visions of eternal Paradise ahead, he holds on to his amending position ("Giunto sul passo estremo") and dies after being redeemed in the eye of God. Mefistofele, understandably pissed about losing his bet at the last minute, retreats in the unbearable comfort of his Underworld Headquarters.