1842 — 1918
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Arrigo Boito was an important figure in 19th-century Italian opera, though he, himself, only completed one opera. It is for his literary prowess that he is best remembered. His librettos fuelled the magnificent operas of the time, set by composers includingVerdi, Puccini and Ponchielli. Unfortunately, Boito’s own crippling self-doubt and self-criticism about his compositions prevented him from completing more operas after hisMefistofele.
Boito was born in Padua in 1842, but was raised by his mother in Venice after his father abandoned the family. Boito received music lessons as a young boy from Luigi Piet and the brothers Antonio and Giovanni Buzzola. In 1853, he enrolled at the Milan Conservatory and soon after was awarded a grant.
For the first two years of his study, Boito was not popular among his teachers as they were unimpressed by his eccentricity, not to mention his weak sense of rhythm and odd harmonic preferences. After Franco Faccio entered the school in 1855, Boito began to show more promise.
The two collaborated on the cantata Il Quattro giugno (1860), which was performed successfully at the conservatory in September 1860. For this work, which was inspired by the death of one of their schoolmates on 4 June 1859 at the Battle of Magenta, Boito composed half of the music and provided the complete text. The next year, the two friends collaborated on a second cantata, Le sorelle d’Italia, which served as a celebration of the European people who were still under foreign domination.
With these cantatas, Boito won the approval of his teacher, Alberto Mazzucato. Mazzucato, who served as principal conductor at La Scala for nearly a decade and was an opera composer, helped secure grants for both Boito and Faccio with the support of the Countess Maffei. With this grant, the two composers were able to travel around Europe for a year after their graduation in 1861.
On their travels, they met both Rossini and Verdi in Paris in the spring of 1862. It was there that Boito wrote and presented his libretto for Verdi’sInno delle nazioni, which was premiered in London on 24 May 1862 at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Boito concluded his journey by travelling to the homeland of his mother—Poland—in the summer of 1862, returning to Italy by the end of the year. While in Poland, he was inspired to orchestrate sections of what was to become Mefistofele. In addition, he wrote the libretto for Faccio’s Amleto. Back in Italy, Gounod’sFaust, which featured Boito’s libretto, was greeted with much praise after its premiere at La Scala on 11 November 1862.
Boito made enemies with many composers in the mid-1860s, notably Verdi, when he claimed that the altars of Italian art were no longer clean, as they were as stained as the outer walls of a brothel. With statements such as this, it is no wonder that Boito belonged to the Scapigliatura, a group which aimed to cleanse the Italian arts of provincialism. During this period, Boito authored a number of poems which solidified his ideals. These poems were written between 1862 and 1865, but were not published until 1877 as theLibro de’ versi. Other works from this period include his fableRe Orso and his poem Dualismo.
During the 1860s, Boito also served as a critic of both music and drama. His position as co-editor ofIl Figaro allowed him to publish his own articles in abundance, though they also appeared inLa perseveranza and the Giornale della Società del quartetto di Milano. His goal was to convince people to abandon the past styles in favour of a future style of art that was more mature.
In 1867, Boito began working on Mefistofele again, finishing it in January 1868. Unfortunately, the process was not without problems. Due to budget constrictions, he was unable to cast a tenor in the role of Faust, instead employing a baritone for the role. Interestingly, Boito circulated his libretto weeks before the opera and was the first composer with a La Scala premiere to have written his own libretto.
The premiere in La Scala was to be conducted by Mazzucato, who left the project after Boito refused to let cuts be made to the opera. As a result, Boito conducted the premiere himself, despite having inferior knowledge of conducting. At the premiere, the performance lasted for hours, going late into the night. Of the entire performance, the only part that was appreciated was the prologue.
For the second performance, the opera was performed over two evenings, each beginning with the prologue and ending withBrahma, a ballet by Dall’Argine. This did not improve opera’s reception, which was despised by audiences. Only the ballet was appreciated. Disgusted with himself, Boito withdrew his score.
Following the Mefistofele fiasco, Boito concentrated on writing articles on opera and translating German lieder under the pseudonym ‘Tobia Gorrio’. In addition, he helped realize Italian versions ofArmide, Der Freischütz, Ruslan and Lyudmila and Rienzi.
In 1871, after a successful performance of the prologue of Mefistofele, Boito decided to greatly revise his huge opera. To start with, he shortened it dramatically and followed his initial desire of having a tenor star as Faust. After some help from Cesare Dominiceti, the revised version was premiered in October 1875 in Bologna, to a much more receptive audience. The most popular part of the opera, besides the prologue was, and remains, the ‘Prison Scene’.
Though Verdi was certainly no fan of Boito, after much convincing, Verdi agreed to look at a libretto forOtello that Boito would write. Impressed, Verdi agreed to work with Boito on a trial basis, with the revision of the libretto for Verdi’sSimon Boccanegra. While the collaboration was not completely harmonious, the premiere in February 1887 was a huge success, marking the beginning of a friendship and working partnership between the two men, who would also collaborate onFalstaff.
Other impressive librettos from Boito include the five-act Nerone. With the encouragement of Giulio Ricordi, Boito also composed a score to go along with his libretto, though he never finished it. His self-confidence was so shaken after his previous failure that he was never able to compose with satisfaction again. Instead, he worked on the score until his death. It was not performed until six years after his death, in May 1924 at La Scala, in a version that was completed and revised by Toscanini, Antonio Smareglia and Vincenzo Tommasini.
Boito also dedicated much time throughout his career to improving the conditions at La Scala. In 1912, he became a senator and in 1913 he helped establish the Museo Teatrale alla Scala. He was awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1893 and was also a proponent of quality music education in Italy, serving on a committee dedicated to the cause.
Despite his limited output as a composer, Boito’s literary contributions were invaluable to late-19th century opera.