Boito, Arrigo 1842-1918

views updated

BOITO, Arrigo 1842-1918
(Enrico Giuseppe Giovanni Boito, Tobia Gorrio)


Born February 24, 1842, in Padua, Italy; died June 10, 1918, in Milan, Italy; buried in Cimitero Monumentale, Milan, Italy; son of Silverio (a painter) and Giuseppina Radolinska (a Polish countess). Education: Graduated from the Milan Conservatory. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Composer and librettist. Inspector general of Italian conservatories, 1892-1918; made senator by the King of Italy, 1912. Military service: Served in Garibaldi's army, 1866.


Honorary doctorates from Cambridge University and Oxford University.



Mefistofele, performed at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 1868.

Nerone, revised and conducted by Arturo Toscanini at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 1924.


Franco Francesco Antonio Faccio, Amleto, 1865.

Gellio Benevenuto Coronaro, Un tramonto, 1873.

Alfredo Catalani, La falce, 1875.

(Under pseudonym Tobia Gorrio) Amilcare Ponchielli, La Gioconda, 1876.

Giovanni Bottesini, Ero e Leandro, 1879.

Giuseppe Verdi, Simone Boccanegra, 1881.

Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, 1887.

Giuseppe Verdi, Falstaff, 1893.

Ricardo Pick-Mangiagalli, Basi e bote, 1927.


Carteggio Verdi-Boito, edited by Mario Medici and Marcello Conato, two volumes, [Parma, Italy], 1978, published as The Verdi-Boito Correspondence, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.

Author of a book of verses published in Turin, Italy, in 1877, under the pseudonym Tobia Gorrio. Boito's letters have been collected in Lettere, edited by Raffaello Rensis, and his librettos and other writings have been collected in Tutti gli scritti, edited by Pietro Nardi, 1942. Translator of operas Tristan und Isolde and Rienzi by Richard Wagner. Author of text for Giuseppe Verdi's cantata Inno delle nazioni, 1862. Also author of Opere, 1979, and contributor of articles to the Gazetta musicale di Milano and other music periodicals.


Arrigo Boito was a composer best known for his only completed opera, Mefistofele, which premiered in Italy in 1868 and was based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's romantic masterpiece Faust. Boito also wrote the librettos for other notable operas, including Giuseppe Verdi's Otello and Falstaff and Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda. His music met with great criticism, and after the premiere of Mefistofele, he never completed another opera, preferring instead to concentrate on the written word. By the late twentieth century, periodic revivals of Mefistofele kept his legacy as a composer alive, and his reputation as Verdi's most assured librettist has never been in danger of waning. In a review of a recording of Mefistofele for the American Record Guide, Lee Milazzo wrote that "Boito's mighty score makes such huge demands on [performers] that the ideal presentation will be heard only in heaven."

Boito began his musical education at the Milan Conservatory, where his performances gained him attention from the Italian government. He was awarded a gold medal and given a two-year travel stipend, which he used to study French and German music while traveling through Europe. In Paris he met many famous composers of the day, including Hector Berlioz, Gioacchino Rossini, and Verdi. Initially, Boito did not get along with Verdi, because Boito was hostile to Italian opera, which he thought lacked depth, preferring instead German and French compositions. When Boito returned to Italy, he became associated with a movement known as the Scapigliature ("the disheveled ones"), a group of writers who were known for their brooding pessimism and preoccupation with antiheroes. Throughout his life, Boito was as much a composer as he was a writer, and his critical writings about opera for publications such as La Perseveranza and Il Giornale della Societa del Quartetto were informed by the confrontational ideals of the Scapigliature, as were his short stories and poems, some of which were published under the pseudonym Tobia Gorrio.

At six hours in length, Boito's Mefistofele, written shortly after he returned from his European travels and which was influenced by the work of Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Wagner, was not warmly received at its premiere; in fact, it caused considerable outbursts of violence in the audience, which later spread to rioting in the surrounding neighborhoods. Listeners objected to Boito's interpretation of Goethe's legend, the opera's length, and the performance itself, which was conducted by Boito and performed by singers of limited talent. After a second performance, the opera was canceled.

In writing Mefistofele, Boito was determined to tell Goethe's entire mythic tale—a story about a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge—rather than just part of it, as Charles Gounod's 1859 opera Faust had. After its disastrous premiere, Boito spent several years revising the opera, eventually cutting it in half. The second version, first performed in 1875, proved much more popular and was performed to great acclaim in 1880 in London, Hamburg, and Boston. It returned to La Scala, the scene of its initial fiasco, in 1881, and thereafter became an opera mainstay. More than a century later, the opera continued to be staged periodically. "Not everyone takes to this wide-ranging, ambitious interpretation of Goethe's verse drama," wrote George Hall in an Opera News review of a performance in London in 1999, "but despite its episodic nature and the idiosyncrasy of Boito's compositional style, the opera's achievement, if intermittent, is genuine enough to make the occasional revival worthwhile." In a review of a 1996 New York City Opera production of Mefistofele, Robert Croan, writing in the Opera News, called it an "odd piece of musical theater," but George Jellinek, also in an Opera News review of a recorded version of the opera, wrote that it contains "magnificent moments" and has a "brilliant prologue."

Boito's librettos for Verdi's Otello and Falstaff are still highly regarded, though the two men initially had a difficult relationship. However, others were able to convince them to set aside their differences for the sake of their art, and their association blossomed and lasted until Verdi's death. Boito was fluent in German and English, as well as Italian, which enabled him to comprehend the plays in their original form and translate the symbolism and rhythm of those languages into his Italian-language librettos. In adapting William Shakespeare's drama Othello for the opera, "Boito understood that he should present Otello as the personification of honor and love," wrote Hamish F.G. Swanston in the Opera News. Boito's relationship with Verdi was documented in their letters to one another, which were collected and published as The Verdi-Boito Correspondence. In reviewing the book for the Opera News, Patrick J. Smith appreciated the light it shed on both men, particularly on Boito's proficiency as an intellectual as well as a composer and librettist. Smith concluded that the book is "valuable … for what it has to say about two great artists as human beings."

Boito worked on his second opera, Nerone, for more than fifty years but never completed it. In 1924 it was performed for the first time by Arturo Toscanini.



Boito, Arrigo, and Giuseppe Verdi, The Verdi-Boito Correspondence, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.


American Record Guide, May-June, 1997, Lee Milazzo, review of Boito's Mefistofele, p. 288; January-February, 1998, Lee Milazzo, review of Boito's Mefistofele, p. 85.

Opera News, April 2, 1994, Hamish F.G. Swanston, "More Verdi Than Ever," p. 8; November, 1996, George Jellinek, review of Mefistofele, p. 44; December 24, 1994, Patrick J. Smith, review of The Verdi-Boito Correspondence, p. 41; December 28, 1996, Robert Croan, review of Mefistofele, p. 44; August, 1999, George Hall, review of Mefistofele, p. 68; February, 2000, Louise T. Guinther, review of Mefistofele, p. 53.

Times (London, England), July 8, 1880, "Boito's Mefistofele, "p.5.*

About this article

Boito, Arrigo 1842-1918

Updated About content Print Article