Night of the Classical Sabbath
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—
[Faust kisses her] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!—
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
The above lines were taken from English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Oft quoted by aspiring thespians and used as a running gag in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Shakespeare in Love, the lines are spoken by the philosopher Faust upon meeting the fabled Helen of Troy from Antiquity.
The legend of Faust and his bargain with the Devil (actually, a wager between Lucifer and the Lord) have inspired many an artist throughout the centuries, most noteworthy among them the German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust, his own two-part study in verse, was the inspiration as well for a number of like-minded composers.
Gounod’s five-act Faust, the most memorable of the works transformed into operas based on Goethe’s poem, eliminated all mention of Helen of Troy; it concentrated instead on the love affair between the maiden Marguerite (called Gretchen in Goethe’s original) and the dashing young cavalier Faust. Berlioz, too, maintained a reasonable focus on the Faust-Marguerite love story in La Damnation de Faust, a symphonic poem for orchestra, soloists and chorus that is frequently staged as an opera.
Even earlier than either the Gounod or the Berlioz work is Robert Schumann’s oratorio-like Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a three-part choral and orchestral piece for eight solo voices. Later, Busoni, in a more eclectic, intellectually conceived design, gave the operatic world his version of Doktor Faust, which eliminated Marguerite entirely (the character is hinted at via the presence of her brother) in favor of metaphysics. Helen, too, is scarcely perceptible as a phantasmagoric vision.
It was left, then, to the Italian Arrigo Boito to conjure up the voluptuous image of the Greek beauty Helen, stolen by Paris from her husband, the warlike Menelaus, which led to the decade-long siege of Troy (or Ilium, as it was also called) and to the city’s eventual fall and destruction. Although Boito’s Mefistofele, a cosmic interpretation of Goethe’s epic work and originally presented in two parts, was considered an abject failure at its 1868 La Scala premiere, it was later re-worked, re-written, and re-thought and given a triumphant remounting in 1875. Further revisions shaped it into the bombastic piece we know today.
What remained of the so-termed “Night of the Classical Sabbath” is a truncated, hardly awe-inspiring fourth act to follow the emotionally charged third. Tacked on to Mefistofele as more of an after-thought than a carefully constructed bridge between acts, it contrasts the romantic liaison of Faust and Margherita (who, you will recall, met her untimely demise in Act III) and the make-believe one of Faust and the regal Helen, who holds court by the River Pineios (or Peneus), named after the river god of ancient Thessaly. This act is also known as the Vale of Tempe sequence.
In the volume Opera on Record 3 (edited by Alan Blyth), music critic and contributor John Higgins proposed that “the music of the fourth act [of Mefistofele] is never included in selections of highlights from the opera, and it could possibly be considered optional in a stage performance, in much the same way as the Walpurgisnacht Ballet in Gounod’s Faust” (coincidentally, as part of a very long Act IV of that work). Well, we needn’t go that far. While it’s true that audiences are eager to get on to the rousing conclusion, I am of the opinion that Boito’s Act IV makes for a palatable lead-in to what comes after.
However, Higgins went on to claim that “the Vale of Tempe Act also poses the problem of whether to cast a second soprano as Elena (Helen) or whether to treat her as another facet of Margherita.” Surely, there was a financial consideration involved in this suggestion. In most live productions of Mefistofele, the part of Elena is normally taken by a second artist (as in San Francisco Opera’s 2013 revival with soprano Marina Harris). It makes perfect sense, too, to cast the same singer as both Elena and Margherita, provided she has the goods to mold separate and distinct characterizations. Elena’s tessitura is not as vocally demanding or as emotionally taxing (or rewarding) as that of Margherita’s. Still, either way will work given that both roles are clearly differentiated on stage.
As the act opens, the audience hears a barcarolle-like musical theme amid harp-plucked textures that call to mind (and that listeners may rightly compare to) the more famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s unfinished The Tales of Hoffmann. Elena and the mezzo-soprano portraying Pantalis blend their voices together in an ethereal number, “La luna immobile innonda l’etere …. Canta” (“The motionless moon bathes the still ether … Sing on”). The two women give pause from their moonlight boat ride as Faust, from a distance, calls out Helen of Troy’s name repeatedly, each time in varying octaves (“Elena, Elena, Elena, Elena”) — the last of which rises in anticipation of his meeting with the legendary figure.
This number is similar in execution to the opening of the third act Witches’ Sabbath scene at the hellish Brocken Mountain (“Folletto, folletto, velloce, leggier”). Here, though, familiarity breeds contempt. Surely, Boito could have found a more trenchant musical representation, though in truth the calmness and serenity of this sequence (including a delightful minuet in the Boccherini mode) boosts the languid nature of the plot. Furthermore, the change in tone and mood is palpable, and clashes markedly with the rest of the opera. Listeners should take this episode for what it is: a pleasant diversion, even a brief respite, before the big finale.
Mefistofele has brought Faust to this ancient locale so the philosopher can forget his remorse at how the pitiable Margherita met her tragic fate. Faust will taste of mythical love, but the overly-respectable ambience and decorum leave Mefistofele cold and bored: He much prefers the harsh scents of the Brocken (the Hell he does!). With the entrance of dancing nymphs and such, Mefistofele momentarily takes his leave.
Helen enters and, in an intensely dramatic delivery (“Notte cupa, truce, senza fine, funebre!” – “Oh night, dark and grim, endless, funereal!”), she recalls the terrible time that Troy was sacked. The very air reverberated with the echoes of clashing shields, thundering chariots, and whining catapults; the very ground turned red with blood. The gods, enraged, rained down fire and fury upon the city. The gigantic shadows of the invading Greeks were cast against the flaming walls of Troy, until a deathly silence was all that was left. One of Boito’s many additions to the score, it’s a shame this declamatory piece has never been recorded on anyone’s recital disc. It can be quite effective in performance.
Just then, Helen’s nymphs turn to see a stranger slowly approaching. Who is this splendid hero? Why, it’s the gallant Faust, decked out in all his finery (he’s dressed, according to the libretto, as a fifteenth-century knight). He prostrates himself before Helen and declares his undying love. Various assorted sirens and fauns, along with Pantalis, Nereus, and the curiously aroused Mefistofele accompany Faust as he pitches his woo at the receptive queen (“Forma ideal purissima” – “Purest and ideal form of beauty”).
Tormented at first by her recollection of that horrible night, Helen opens her heart to this handsome fellow. The two join their voices in a rapturous ensemble, beginning with their mutual declaration of love (“T’amo, t’amo, t’amo, t’amo”) to the same tune as Faust’s earlier repeated entreaties of her name. Together, the couple and the assembled participants engage in a powerful concertato (“Ah! Amore! Misterio, celeste, profondo!” – “Ah, Love, mysterious, heavenly, profound!”), the main melody of which will recur near the end of the Epilogue where Mefistofele urges the dying Faust to once again listen to the song of love (“Odi il canto d’amor!”).
This ensemble, as previously mentioned in Part Six of this series (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera-part-six-second-intermission/), shares many similarities with a comparable one in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The lovers’ voices rise higher and higher, until at the ensemble’s climax the gathering begins to disperse. Helen tells Faust that Arcadia lies just beyond a peaceful valley. And that is where they will live forever, declares the ardent knight. They continue to exchange terms of endearment as the curtain slowly falls to a tremulous theme in the strings, the same one that opened the act.
“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful”: The Death of Faust
A long and languorous postlude sets the scene for the celebrated Epilogue. It is here that librettist and musician Boito finally attained the Olympian heights he had so long desired. As one writer derisively put it, “Attempting too much, he accomplished too little.” That may be a fair analysis of the Mefistofele project as a whole. But whether you agree with this assessment or not, certainly the Epilogue brings the heady drama to a stirring close in a most satisfactory way. Boito has taken the listener on Faust’s journey of enlightenment. “From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven,” wrote Goethe. Did Boito achieve his purpose? We think so.
We are back in Faust’s laboratory, where the philosopher and the Devil first struck their fiendish bargain. Faust is old now, having lived his life twice over. He’s tasted both the passion (and the despair) of mortal love, as well as experienced an amorous fling with a legendary figure. Faust sold his soul for an extended period of physical pleasure, yet even in advanced age he has yet to see that vision of loveliness where he must pose that fateful declaration.
And true to form, the observant Mefistofele reminds him of this. “You have lusted,” Satan bellows, “indulged yourself and lusted anew, but still you have not bid the fleeting moment to ‘Stay, thou art so fair!’ ” Faust concurs with this evaluation. Indeed, he’s known the real and the ideal, the love of a fair maiden and the heart of a goddess, but what of them? The real (“il Real fu dolore”) only brought him suffering, and the ideal was but a dream (“e l’Ideal fu sogno”).
At this point, Faust launches into one of the most beautiful and dreamlike tenor arias in the entire Italian repertoire: “Giunto sul passo estremo, della più estrema età” (“Having reached the final step of extreme old age”). He awakens from his trance to find a peaceful world, one of an immense expanse; one where life has a purpose, and one where he can give life to a fruitful people. Mefistofele, in an aside, is concerned that his prize is slipping from his grasp. The Devil means to seek out his heart’s desire — a desperation move at best.
The philosopher continues to apostrophize despite the dire situation: his one desire is that his people and their flocks, their houses, fields and cities, will rise up by the thousands to live under a cogent set of laws. Dream on, Herr Faust, dream on! A wary Lucifer urges himself to be on the alert. Seeing that his victim has become obsessed, at this late stage, with doing good works, Mefistofele primes himself for battle with the Heavenly Host.
Unlike the Vale of Tempe section, there are multiple recorded extracts of both “Dai campi,” the first-act tenor aria, and the elegiac “Giunto sul passo.” According to Opera on Record 3, the best of the early acoustic and/or electric batches were those by the Italians Giuseppe Anselmi, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Aureliano Pertile, and Giovanni Zenatello. For those wanting a more modern-sounding style, Luciano Pavarotti’s recitals can’t be beat. And from the complete albums, Plácido Domingo’s two sets (recorded in 1974 for EMI/Angel and 1989 for Sony Classical, respectively) are excellent mementos of the Spanish tenor’s art.
As Faust concludes his reverie, suddenly a radiant glow appears in the distance. Faust hears a heavenly hymn and rejoices in the “august rays of such a dawn.” But the Devil sees through the light. “Good now reveals itself to him!” he spouts. “Tempter, beware! Tempter, beware!”
Trumpets sound from every corner of the theater. Their fanfare hails the arrival of the Heavenly Host. Spreading his cloak on the ground, Mefistofele orders Faust to fly through the air with him one last time. Perhaps he can entice the good doctor away for further madcap adventures. But as the trumpets grow louder, the Celestial Choir, the harbinger of the coming Heavenly Host, rises above the din. It too grows louder and louder, repeating a wordless “Ah!”
Now in extreme distress, Mefistofele calls out the doctor’s name in vain: “Faust! Faust! Faust!” Each time he does, it is more desperate and anxious than the previous cry. And the music has taken us back to the start of the opera: “Ave Signor, degli angeli, dei santi, delle sfere…” – “Hail, Lord of the Angels, and All of the Saints, and All of the Spheres ….” It’s a remarkable moment, certainly one of the most invigorating climaxes in all opera. The voices grow noisier and more clamorous, until they drop to barely a whisper for the “Ave Signor.”
In a final outburst of insolence, Mefistofele cries out to Faust: “Hear the song of love! Come drink the blood from the sirens’ breast!” It’s the theme of Faust and Helen of Troy’s amorous declaration. In some productions, signs of a homoerotic relationship between the Tempter and the tempted are openly implied. At New York City Opera’s famed Tito Capobiano production, Mefistofele all-but embraced the hallucinating Faust to prevent him from fleeing his clutches. Topping that, both bass-baritone Norman Treigle and basso Samuel Ramey, his successor in the part, would writhe on the floor in agony over Faust’s impending salvation.
At last, Faust utters the dreaded words: “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (“Arrestati, sei bello!”). “Look away!” Mefistofele roars in disapproval. “Look away!” – “Torci il guardo, torci il guardo!” But it is too late. Clasping the Bible to his bosom, Faust cries out to God and Satan that “The Gospel is my bulwark!” He reaches up to high C. (Note to audience members: Say a silent prayer that the tenor doesn’t crack on that pivotal note!) The cherubim chime in, accompanied by the Celestial Choir. Falling to his knees, Faust, much like the condemned Margherita, prays for his deliverance from this mocking demon. “Lead me not into temptation!”
Repeating his entreaties to “Stay, grant me eternity,” and in the ensuing ruckus of the competing choirs of angels, cherubim, and seraphim, Faust gives up his soul and expires. At the same time, Mefistofele is pelted (according to the original stage instructions) with a shower of roses, which also descend over Faust’s lifeless body. Most productions ignore this directive, but one can imagine the effect it would have if some director had the courage to try it. What we usually get is a patented light show, or, in some productions, a freeze-frame of the action.
Nevertheless, the Celestial Choir hails the Lord’s victory over evil (and Faust’s personal victory over adversity) with a long-sustained final note. The impressive trumpet fanfares, heard at the beginning of the opera, conclude the Epilogue with a stunningly climactic explosion of sound.
The last solo voice to be heard, however, is that of Mefistofele himself. Thrusting an angry fist into the air, the Devil tosses his wrath to the four winds. “The Lord triumphs, but the reprobate whistles! Eh! Eh!” It sounds even stronger in Italian: “Trionfa il Signor, ma il reprobo fischia! Eh! Eh!” Putting his fingers to his lips, Satan blows those ear-piercing screeches at God, but to no avail.
Open to Interpretation
In the Epilogue to the Met Opera’s revival of Mefistofele, Satan is literally carried away on the shoulders of masked choristers. He thrashes and shouts over the cries of the chorus. For a different take, two variants on the standard ending are available online. They can be viewed and enjoyed on YouTube: one, from the 2008 Teatro Massimo of Palermo production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (tenor Mario del Monaco’s son), features Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role, with Giuseppe Filianoti as Faust; the other, a 2016 Philipp Himmelmann production for Munich’s Baden-Baden theater, stars an electric combination of Erwin Schrott as Mefisto and Charles Castronovo as the youngish Faust.
The Teatro Massimo presentation concludes as it began, with an end of life vision of a long, concentric-circled tunnel that leads to a bluish light at its center. In the Prologue, Mefistofele slowly crawls out from this wormhole-like aperture as if it were a birth canal. When he reaches center stage, the Devil picks up an armchair and threatens the light with it. This motion is carried over into the Epilogue, but in reverse order. After Faust’s “Giunto sul passo” air, the doctor retrieves the torn pages of his Bible and clasps them to his chest. This is his salvation. In a last-ditch effort to change Faust’s mind, Mefistofele hungrily embraces the old man but is driven away by the voices of the unseen chorus. As the music reaches its apex, he picks up that same armchair (on which an elderly Faust has sat) and, for the last time, threatens the choir with it in the same manner as before.
Incidentally, Filianoti is especially poignant in his rendering of Faust’s one chance at recovery. The voice, cracking with emotion, mimics that of an aged philosopher, not that of youthful tenor in his prime. How the listener may take this approach, which I find much truer to the drama, is a matter of taste. I, for one, liked it. Not to be outdone, Furlanetto pulls out all the stops. His deep, resonant bass rings out firmly in this scene. Plush is the term I would use to describe his vocal apparatus, if only slightly past its prime. His acting is even better; one can sense the desperation as Mefisto struggles to stay ahead of the game, despite his realization that all is lost.
In the presentation from Baden-Baden, Erwin Schrott’s sturdy bass-baritone, while resounding strongly on the soundtrack, is not nearly as plush as his colleague’s. His is a leaner, less full-toned instrument than Furlanetto’s true bass grounding. While it fails to plumb the depths of the part, Schrott’s acting is in a different league entirely. This is based on director Himmelmann’s conception of the Devil as a hipster, and on Schrott’s own view of the character as a sexy beast in a butch haircut. The swagger, the self-confidence, and the total identification with the master manipulator fit Schrott’s physical and vocal attributes well.
Contrasting this production’s Epilogue with that of the Teatro Massimo, in Baden-Baden the Devil is the one who tears out the pages of the Holy Bible, not Faust. He ends up ripping the book in two and throwing it to the ground. Faust, sung ever-so-delicately by Castronovo, barely takes notice. Instead, he gives the audience its money’s worth with a gorgeously timed, gently laced rumination on “Giunto sul passo.” He strains at the highest notes, however, which slightly mars and disrupts the vocal line. All in all, his is much tamer and less compelling version of Faust’s vision than Filianoti’s more verismo-based account.
As to the powerful conclusion, I much prefer Furlanetto’s handling of the close. In Schrott’s interpretation, the Devil loses himself in a string of chintzy tinsel strips suspended from the stage’s ceiling. Swishing his arms back and forth along the strips, Schrott appears to be lost backstage while swirling in and out of view. Meanwhile, Castronovo stands front and center as the curtains slowly close in on him. I, too, was lost as to the meaning of all this, but no matter.
Both performances are available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. If you’re looking for a change of pace while waiting for the Met Opera’s December revival of Mefistofele; if you’re curious to learn how our mania for old warhorses can be tailored to fit freshly-minted Las Vegas kitsch, either the stylistically challenging Palermo production or the later Baden-Baden version should fill that bill quite nicely. Fortunately, the singing in both productions is top-notch. They can be safely recommended with only minor reservations.
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes