Act Three: The Death of Margherita
Although relatively short, this strongly emotional act is one of Italian opera’s finest examples of drama made more potent through words and song. Margherita’s pathetic opening solo harkens back to the early days of bel canto, i.e., to the so-called Mad Scenes in such masterworks as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena, along with Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani and Meyerbeer’s Dinorah among other examples.
Verdi himself hinted at it in Act IV of his penultimate opera Otello, with Desdemona’s delicate Canzone del Salice (“Willow Song”) and “Ave Maria.” As well he should, for Verdi’s learned colleague and librettist was the poet Arrigo Boito, the composer and lyricist of Mefistofele.
The scene is a prison cell at night. Margherita is alone, lying on a cot or bed of straw, or on the bare floor (with many permutations in between, especially in today’s director-driven theater). She is awaiting her execution. The mournful-sounding prelude to the scene is dominated by the lower strings, the clarinet, and characteristically the flute — the unofficial instrument of lunacy. The girl has gone completely insane, her mental faculties unraveling as a result of her actions. And what actions could those be?
She awakens, as if from a dream. Beginning with the words, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” Margherita re-enacts for herself (and for the audience’s awareness) the heinous crimes with which she has been charged:
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!
The other night they threw my child
Into the bottom of the sea
And now, to drive me crazy,
They say that I drowned it.
The air is cold
The cell is dark
And my soul is saddened
Like the wood sparrow
It flies, flies, flies away.
Ah! Take pity on me!
Margherita is accused of murdering the child she conceived with Faust. Continuing with the second couplet, she recalls leaving her mother in a deep slumber, only to find to her horror that she has been accused of poisoning her, or so “they” have informed her. Margherita does not realize (or remember) that it was Faust who gave her the vial of sleeping potion, which turned out to be a strong slow-acting poison. She ends her reminiscence with an entreaty to God to have mercy on her soul.
The acknowledged classic rendition of this melancholy showpiece has been Claudia Muzio’s heart-rending reading. Conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli, who led many an early gramophone, acoustic and/or electric performance on 78 rpm, this 1920 version captures the Italian soprano at her most personal. While she did not possess the most powerful of vocal apparatuses, Muzio was blessed with an incredible directness and intensity that influenced a plethora of budding voice students. One could readily associate Maria Callas or Renata Scotto with Muzio’s ability to move listeners with her sweeping passion and care for word values.
Other notable recordings, for those who are interested, were those made by Frances Alda, Geraldine Farrar, Magda Olivero, Régine Crespin, and Maria Chiara, in addition to Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, and Eva Marton in their complete albums. The Barcelona-born soprano Montserrat Caballé, in the EMI/Angel version under Julius Rudel, offers the most devastating modern interpretation. That peculiar catch in the throat that Caballé employs is particularly poignant (she does this with the subsequent aria, “Spunta, l’aurora pallida”). She also boasts the softest of pianissimos as well as unmatched coloratura agility that add another dimension to the tragic bleakness of the piece.
Exhausted from the effort at recollection, Margherita faints in her cell. Faust appears behind the jail cell’s gate, with Mefistofele glaring over his shoulder. It’s at this point that we make note of a change in the Devil’s demeanor vis-à-vis that of his reputed “master,” the philosopher Faust. Who is the servant now, we may ask?
Desperate to save Margherita from death on the gallows (or the block), Faust charges the demon to rescue her. “And who was it who pushed her over the edge?” the Devil inquires, “You or me?” Still, he will do what he can. Tossing the keys of the cell to Faust, Mefistofele blares out that the jailers are sound asleep and the magical horses are ready to fly off. In other words, be quick about your business or you will be left in the lurch.
As Faust approaches the condemned girl, Margherita awakens to delirium. She even mistakes him for her executioner. But Faust briefly rekindles her memory with thoughts of their initial encounter in the garden. He implores her to go with him— right now, at this moment — while there is still time; and to cease with this childish prattle. But Margherita cannot be silenced. Instead, she experiences an epiphany: confessing her crimes to her former lover, the aggrieved woman explains in detail how she wants Faust to treat the graves of her deceased mother and child.
For her own final resting place, she instructs Faust to place her tiny baby on her breast as she lies in the ground. Faust can hardly bear this talk, pleading instead for her to flee. Just as she did in the garden sequence of Act II, scene i, Margherita cannot comprehend this stranger’s thoughts. She states that she cannot follow him. “Hell stands at that gate,” she declares (her feminine intuition tells her that Satan is watching and waiting); that life for her is nothing but sorrow.
At this point, Faust, too, has an inspiration. “Hear love’s voice entreating you. Come, let us fly away together.” Repeating his appeal, Margherita is already dreaming of a faraway haven where they may live forever in peace. The wistful duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Away, far away, far away”), full of longing and nostalgia for better times, brings the two despondent individuals together for the last time. They embrace each other tenderly as they sing:
Lontano, lontano, lontano
Sui flutti d’un ampio oceano
Frai i rovidi effluvi del mar,
Fra l’alghe, fra i fior, fra le palme
Le porto dell’intime calme
L’azzurra isoletta m’appar
Away, far away, far away
On the waves of a broad ocean current
Amid the dewy mists of the sea
Amid the seaweed, the flowers, the palms,
The port of intimate calm
The blue islet appears to me
The harp accompanies the lovers in this tranquil section as they blend their voices in unison. Listeners will make note that the main melody is in the same vein as the Enzo-Laura duet from Act II of La Gioconda (previously discussed in Part Six). A splendid memento of the artistry of tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini and his wife, soprano Pia Tassinari, can be heard in their lovely Cetra-Soria recording of the duet from 1947. The intimacy of the situation and the lovers’ brief moment of repose are vividly captured in this meltingly realized addition to Mefistofele’s recorded legacy.
Just when you thought things might work out in the end, the Devil bursts in to announce (rather crudely if not loudly) that dawn is about to break. Immediately, the mood changes to one of extreme anxiety. The similarity to this scene with Gounod’s Act V is no coincidence. According to researchers, both Gounod and Boito based their visions on Goethe’s poetic theater piece. Gounod and his librettists preferred to stay within the scope of the Marguerite-Faust love story, while Boito (serving up his own text) wanted more of a sweep to his epic-filled adventure, one that took Faust further along his journey of self-discovery. If over-ambition killed Boito’s chances for a ready-made hit, blame the composer. It’s what he wanted all along.
Returning to the prison scene, not for nothing was Margherita deemed a good judge of character. She points to the demonic figure and asserts that Satan is roaring before her. This leads to a fiery (though brief) trio where Margherita asks the Almighty to deliver her from temptation; meanwhile, the Devil admonishes her to cease her empty threats and move on, the horses are waiting and ready to go. Faust, the odd man out (and supposed man of “reason”), tries to convince Margherita to stay calm (how could she amongst all the tumult?). Margherita envisions the executioner’s axe hovering above her head, its blade flashing brightly and ominously.
At the trio’s climax, Faust can no longer restrain his despair. “Oh, would that I had never been born!” he cries out. To that, Mefistofele has but one response: “Ebben?” – “Well?” which can also be translated as “Indeed” or “Is that a fact?” Having heard so many different recordings of this work, and having seen numerous live performances as well, I can vouch with absolute certainty that the most bone-chilling version ever delivered by a singer of this one line came from Norman Treigle’s EMI/Angel release from 1974. Treigle doesn’t so much as hurl the word at Faust; he roars it to high heaven. It pours out from his gut as “EB-BENNNN????” A real stomach churner!
Undeterred, Margherita confronts the chomping beast that is Mefistofele (Chaliapin would be the perfect physical embodiment at this stage). “Who is this who is looming out of the ground? It is the Evil One himself! Have mercy! Chase him away! Get thee behind me! Perhaps it is me that he seeks!” Faust continues his empty entreaties, but the Devil slinks away to keep watch over the gate.
It is time for Margherita’s tragic cabaletta — or rather, in this instance, her follow-up to “L’altra notte,” i.e., the prayer of a condemned woman, “Spunta l’aurora pallida” (“It is breaking, the pale dawn of morning”).
Traditionally, and in a different era, the slow starting-section of a Mad Scene would be succeeded by a faster and livelier coloratura run, as in the aforementioned Lucia. In Mefistofele, however, Boito (and, by implication, his contemporary Ponchielli) altered the sequence somewhat. In the generally-accepted notion that Mad Scenes needed to bring down the house, Boito hit upon a novel approach that paved the way for verismo. The “reality” of the dramatic situation, not the demand to show-off one’s vocal abilities, began to take precedent. In sum, these were to become a “truer” representation of everyday life as they knew it.
In La Gioconda, for instance, the title character goes “mad” in Act IV, in that she has saved her lover Enzo’s life by giving up her own (Gioconda stabs herself to death before the spy Barnaba is about to ravish her). Her coloratura runs indicate her unraveling. Similarly (or maybe not), Margherita dies after her supplication to the Lord to deliver her soul to Heaven. Her words here have a particular sting for ex-lover Faust: “Tell no one that you once loved Margherita and that I gave you my heart. Forgive this dying woman. Forgive her, Lord. Holy Father, save me! And you, heavenly voices, protect this supplicant who turns her eyes to you.”
Looking on the scene with distaste and bemusement, Mefisto pronounces judgment: “She is condemned!” And lost to Faust, we presume. Disillusioned by what he as witnessed, Faust vents his frustrations at his tempter: “O strazio!” – “Oh, torment!” In defiance, with her dying breath Margherita whispers a final rebuke to Faust: “Enrico …. mi fai ribrezzo…” – “Heinrich (the name she knew him under), you fill me with disgust.”
At the last, the Celestial Host intones a hushed, prayerful “E salva” (“She is saved”) from on high, thus sealing Margherita’s fate for all eternity. Thwarted, the Devil is prevented from claiming his victim’s soul. He senses that his wager with the Lord is in peril. Clinging to Faust for dear life, he envelops the philosopher in his embrace and brings down the curtain on the act with the phrase “A me, Faust!” – “Follow me, Faust!” (Sometimes given as “Away with me,” or “Come to me”). Even though the opera has not “officially” ended, audiences can look forward to the next act with anticipation for what is to come.
Most bassos conclude this powerful episode with Boito’s written notations. However, in my experience only one artist has attempted to raise the bar for ending this scene on a highly theatrical note: in the mid-1980s, Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Díaz created his own Norman Treigle-moment at New York City Opera — not by singing or shouting, but by reaching deep down into his belly and rasping out the phrase, “Aaaah, ME, Faust!” in rising cadences.
The quaint Victorian-era notion that only good girls go to Heaven, while bad girls get their just desserts, is carried to the extreme in Gounod’s Faust. In Boito (and in Goethe), Faust is a tireless seeker of knowledge: that is, what is available to man and what is forbidden to him; the sacred as well as the profane. In many ways, Faust is comparable to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, in that only the male of the species can partake of the fruit of the vine. If women try to do the same, they are chastised and ostracized by society.
On the one hand, Gounod’s Marguerite paid dearly for her tryst with Faust. On the other, Margherita is forgiven (as Marguerite also was) after having confessed her sins and pleaded her case to the Lord of Hosts.
In Giancarlo Del Monaco’s modern-esque 2008 production of Mefistofele for the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the producer-director introduces a ladder into the third act prison scene. During the “Spunta l’aurora pallida” sequence, Del Monaco has the singer playing Margherita, Dimitra Theodossiou, climb the ladder until she expires from sheer exhaustion — an aborted shot at reaching that stairway to heaven? Now that’s taking opera a bit too literally!
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes