Arrigo Boito Biography (BBC)
Equally drawn to both music and literature, Arrigo Boito would be disappointed to learn that he is now best remembered only vicariously, as Verdi’s last, and arguably finest, librettist – or anagrammatically, as ‘Tobia Gorrio’, librettist of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – rather than as either a composer or a poet in his own right.
The son of a Polish countess and an Italian miniaturist, who soon left his wife and sons, Boito was born in Padua but brought up in Venice. After early music lessons, he entered the Milan Conservatory in 1853, at the age of 11, but made little progress until striking up what was to become a lifelong friendship with an older fellow student, Franco Faccio.
Later to find his true métier as a conductor – most notably as music director of La Scala, Milan, from 1871 (until succumbing to syphilitic insanity two decades later) – Faccio was then thought the better composer of the two. And so, in collaborating on a pair of patriotic Risorgimento cantatas – Il quattro giugno (‘The Fourth of June’) and Le sorelle d’Italia (‘The Sisters of Italy’) – in 1860 and 1861, Boito found himself cast as the wordsmith, as he was to be again for Faccio’s 1865 opera Amleto, whose Shakespearian subject was to prove doubly prophetic of the great Verdian collaborations to come.
Yet, although Boito met Verdi in Paris in 1862, and even wrote the text for the Inno delle nazioni (‘Hymn of the Nations’) – Verdi’s contribution to that year’s London Exhibition – their famous partnership so nearly never happened. For in 1863, in a celebratory ode read out at a banquet after the premiere of Faccio’s first opera, I profughi fiamminghi (‘The Flemish Fugitives’), Boito hailed his boyhood friend as the composer fated ‘to cleanse the altar of Italian opera of the stains that now defile it like a brothel wall’ and so caused Verdi deep offence – for who else could the chief ‘defiler’ be but he?
Faccio and Verdi were reconciled when the former conducted the revised La forza del destino at La Scala in 1869, but it was to be another decade before Verdi’s publisher, Ricordi, could persuade him even to consider Boito as a possible librettist. As a trial run, they worked on a revised version of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra; the result (1881) was so successful – not least Boito’s invention of the magnificent Council Chamber scene – that Verdi was won over and they went on to collaborate on Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), and would have gone on to Re Lear too, had not Verdi decided that, at 80, he was too old to undertake it.
Yet, while many class both Otello and Falstaff as finer works of art than their Shakespearian models – and Boito himself rated his work for Verdi as the apex of his artistic career – it’s clear that, with his own operas, his literary ambitions outran his compositional abilities. Both Mefistofele and Nerone contain moments of true inspiration, but their protracted gestation alone testifies to the trouble he had in trying to realise the tasks he had set himself – nothing less than to encompass the whole of Goethe’s Faust in the first, the fall of paganism and the rise of Christianity in the other. After the humiliating fiasco of its 1868 La Scala premiere, Mefistofele endured 13 years of revisions before attaining its final, less ambitious form; while, after nearly 60 years of work, Nerone was still incomplete at the time of Boito’s death and, though posthumously premiered at La Scala in 1924 – conducted, as was Puccini’s Turandot two years later, by Toscanini no less – will never be more than a curious might-have-been.
Profile © Aïda Downes, 2004
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