Saturday, 5 March 2016


Contemporary Review of the Rite's 1913
premiere performance at Paris
Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps wasn’t the only premiere to have caused a scandal. The alleged all-out riot that had occurred in 20th century Paris at the 1913 avant-garde staging of ‘primitively dressed’ ballerinas hopping and crash-landing on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to jarring music (described by one critic as “sheer cacophony”) has become the stuff of legend. What started out as reports of verbal parés crudely exchanged amongst the wealthy and the wealthier had soon spurned into accusations of full-blown violence and police–ordered dispersions (some of them caused by the arresting of offending members of the audience). Music historians at present aren’t entirely sure where the truth ends and where exaggerated sensationalism begins when it comes to Le...Printemps. One thing is known for certain, however – and that is that the spectating public would not soon forget the production or it’s composer (and, in this instance, it’s choreographer). As ill-suited as Le Sacre du Printemps was to befit Parisian high society at the dawn of the twentieth century, the controversy surrounding it’s premiere would unwittingly catapult the work into infamy – with stories and legends of it’s riotous beginning enticing later and present students (and admirers of music and stage) to re-visit Stravinsky’s masterpiece, marvel over the dated quandaries and quarrels surrounding the piece, and bask in it’s innovative and precursive genius - and surprising present-ness.

Such critical polarities as experienced at ‘Le…Printemps’ premiere, in reality, were nothing new. For centuries previous, such displays of opprobrium amongst an unsuspecting and era-stagnant public were commonplace events, with melophilic traditionalists basking comfortably in their present state, refusing to accept the dawning of a new musical age.

Arrigo Boito
Indeed, in mid-late nineteenth century Milan, one of Italy’s own homegrown heroes, Arrigo Boito would introduce into Il Bel Paese a staged adaptation of an epic poem that was to become a German literary masterpiece and which would project it’s author into the much esteemed realm of historically significant Philosophers of Western Europe. The opera based on the novel would be called Mefistofele, it’s titular character created after the poems darker - yet surprisingly empathetic – antagonist: the devil himself.

The basis of Boito’s only opera,[1] of course, was shaped after German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s treatment of the Faust legend (which Goethe had appropriately titled “Faust” after its protagonist).

Goethe’s magnum opus had already caused a sensation across the continent, serving as a source of inspiration for countless other poets, authors, musicians and composers alike. 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Indeed, even at present, there arguably remain scant few literary works that dominate the Western Canon quite as impressively as the German Legend of Faust and Goethe’s interpretation of the fable.

The English speaking world is believed to have first encountered the legendary tale of Faust in 1607, under the penmanship of playwright Christopher Marlowe in his adaptation for the stage entitled The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. While similar in premise to the 19th century phenomenon put forth by Goethe, (both cautionary tales of excess and good triumphing over evil - or, more appropriately, evil attempting to triumph over what is considered to be good), both writers would choose for their protagonist’s end very contrasting fates. In Goethe’s treatment of the Faust legend, the ‘hero’ (Faust) finds redemption at it’s conclusion and is welcomed into the opening arms of angels who await his embrace in heaven. Marlowe’s version is rather macabre – its ‘anti-hero’ (also Faust) finds himself condemned, his body savagely torn apart before being dragged by the devil himself into the bowels of hell.(“B” text)

Perhaps influenced by post revolutionary perspective or religious stance – or perhaps simply drawn to the better poet, the more modern bibliophile would favor Goethe over Marlowe. After all, long gone were the dogmatic times of the early 17th century and it’s associated perceptions of an unjust society, forever repenting in vain to an angry God. This was the age of the Enlightenment, and redemption was all the rage. In many Christian sects, it still is – which is why the premiere performance of Boito’s all-inclusive work (he would pen both the libretto and the music for the Opera), held on March 5, 1868 at La Scala in Milan was so puzzling – that is, if you didn’t know the man in question who composed it.

Arrigo Boito was perceived as somewhat of an operatic anarchist in 19th century Italy. He had opposed the provincialism found in what he called “the old and the stupid” Italian form and infamously compared it’s standing among the musical hierarchy as having fallen from it’s “altar”, now “befouled like a whorehouse wall.” Unsurprisingly, the Italian public found such sentiment wholly distasteful, and, much akin to modern audiences at La Teatro alla Scala, they would have absolutely no qualms about making their feelings known.

Mephistopheles and Faust
At the Opera’s premiere that 5th day of march in 1868, what could be considered a prelude to the audience unrest experienced by Stravinsky and his choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy some four and a half decades later at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, an all-out riot was said to have occurred. Boito was probably aware his magnum opus would cause a sensation: he had installed a very vocal set of claquers (a common feature at the premiere performances of composers, wherein money is exchanged - sometimes willingly, other times by sabotage - between the composer and a large group of hired critics, who would either cheer loudly in approval from the audience wings or hiss disapprovingly), all of whom were present in support of the composer, and all of whom had to, to the best of their abilities, attempt to temper the disapproving Milanese who found Boito’s personal beliefs to be disparaging of their motherland. Much like in the case of Le Sacre du Printemps over four decades later, the dueling factions of the audience engaged in a bickering so loud, the orchestra was alleged to have been rendered inaudible. Accusations of violence in the form of fists flying amongst members of the audience became something of a legend.

What had further offended the loyalists to the Italian artistic form was the fact that Boito, known largely only as a librettist (he would become Verdi’s latest, and greatest librettist, authoring the text to the highly successful operas Otello in 1886,[2] and Falstaff in 1889), had taken cue from the actions of one Richard Wagner (the megalomanic German - both in terms of person and orchestral/artistic scope - now quite controversially refacing both the orchestral and operatic status quo across Europe) when he chose to emulate his muse’s concept of “gesamtkunstwerk” and pen both the score and the libretto for the work (in fact, much of the text can arguably be considered a side-by-side translation of Goethe’s - himself a German - magnum opus). This seemingly enthusiastic homage to the new innovations of the North was perceived by many in Boito’s audience as pandering to the Germans, and it further rubbed salt in the wounds of the already deeply insulted Milanese. Not only was the opera’s length Wagnerian in scope (the premiere performance was some six hours long, spread out), the employment of a baritone (Faust) for a starring role was considered somewhat unusual for the Italian opera-going public, who were accustomed to the rigidity of rules surrounding their national operatic works. After two stagings of Mefistofele, the opera was removed from the Italian repertoire for a period of seven years.

It wasn’t until a highly revised edition of Boito’s only opera appeared on stage in Bologna in 1875 that Mefistofele would accomplish renown and earn a lasting spot on the Italian stage (although the work would undergo several further revisions until it’s definitive version was premiered in 1881, in Milan). The role of Faust was reluctantly switched from baritone to tenor to appease the Italian style, confusing sections were removed, a duet, an aria and a fugue were inserted, leading to the opera and the composer himself unwittingly backing down from forcing into Italy operatic reform (although Wagnerian operatic developments, by this point, were slowly gaining acceptance in the country).

In many ways, what occurred in Italy over the course of those seven years, from premiere to revised premiere, echoed it’s literary parent in Goethe’s Faust, as quite accurately 'predicted' in the works' exquisitely rendered “Prelude in the Theater”:


Above all, give us a lot of action!

They want a show, that gives them satisfaction.

The more you can enact before their eyes,

The greater is your popular acclaim.

If the crowd can gape in dumb surprise

You gain a celebrated name.

The mass is overwhelmed only by the masses,

Each like some part of what has been presented.

He that gives much, gives something to all classes,

And everybody will go home contented.

You have a piece, give it in pieces then!

Write a ragout, you have a pen;

It’s easy to invent, and easy to unroll,

What good is it, if you construct a whole?

The public takes it all apart again.


You do not feel how bad it is to please the rabble,

How artists spurn such craft and cheap applause.

The manner of the hacks that dabble

Has furnished you, I see, with laws!


I am not hurt by your invective:

a man who wants to be effective

must first make sure his tools are good.

You are like the one who would split moldy wood:

Do not forget for whom you write!...

-from Goethe’s Faust, as translated by Walter Kaufmann. See my book review for this title here!

Listen below to an aria so gooseflesh-inducing and exquisite, it is worth posting twice! 20th
century soprano and cult-goddess Maria Callas sings the mournful  "L'altra Notte in Fondo
al Mare"
in the role of Margherita from Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele:

[1] Mefistofele was Boito's only opera complete with music – his bread and butter career was in the arena of librettist, and as such, Boito would serve the operatic world almost exclusively in this role, authoring many a libretti (some under an anagrammed name) for operas composed by other musicians, creating in the process more than a few well known and much beloved masterpieces - the most famous among his 'clients': Giuseppe Verdi.
[2] complete.


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