Italian librettist, composer, poet and critic. He is best remembered
for his one completed opera, Mefistofele, and for his
collaborations as librettist with Verdi.
The literary quality of Boito's librettos follows an ascending scale
from those he wrote for composers other than Verdi, through Otello and
Falstaff, to those he supplied for himself. It was consistent with his
belief that a libretto should be notable as drama that his first effort,
Amleto, for Faccio, was drawn from Shakespeare. Boito's strengths
and weaknesses are already evident: his ability to simplify a
complicated plot and the variety of his poetic language, as well as his
penchant for obscure polysyllables, his faulty sense of overall
proportion, and his tendency to overstress contrasts of good and evil.
Ero e Leandro, originally intended for himself, experiments with
classical metres and embodies considerable antiquarian lore.
Semira, for Luigi San Germano, was withdrawn in rehearsal and
never performed. Basi e bote, a comedy in Venetian dialect, dates
from 1887, but was not set until 1927, by Pick-Mangiagalli. Ir?m was
intended for Dominiceti, who did not set it; it is a pithy comedy with
foreshadowings of Falstaff (e.g. "Il mondo ? un trillo"). Pier
Luigi Farnese, for Costantino Palumbo (1843-1928), is more intense
and more vividly characterized than the other librettos in this group.
The best-known of Boito's texts for composers other than Verdi is that
for Ponchielli's La Gioconda, loosely derived from Hugo's
Angelo. Boito changed the setting to Venice and introduced a good
deal of local colour, and the flamboyant melodramatic tone faithfully
mirrors Hugo's style. The characterization is anything but subtle.
Otello, the first of Boito's completed librettos for Verdi,
has perhaps been overpraised. While undeniably a formidable achievement,
the reduction of Shakespeare's text to operatic proportions was not as
skilful as is usually maintained. Boito drastically altered Iago's
motivation; Rodrigo's participation in the plot is inadequately
developed; and the decisive fact of Cassio's survival is glossed over.
That the libretto is finely proportioned is due more to Verdi's
influence than to Boito. Nor was Boito's treatment as Shakespearean as
is sometimes claimed. (Francis Hueffer's translation in the Ricordi
scores has deceived more than one critic.) Laws of heresy in
Shakespeare's day forbade specific Christian references on stage, yet
many of Boito's changes and additions (the "Credo" and the "Ave Maria")
insert these once-proscribed references. Boito's Falstaff is more
extraordinary, perhaps because he was working from a lesser play. His
fondness for word-play, his knack for hitting upon an epigrammatic
phrase and his mordant irony all found full scope. He seems less
strained than in Otello, and the result is exhilarating and
The 1868 libretto of Mefistofele is more interesting as a
literary document than as a potential text for music. The condensed
version of 1875 sheds most of its novel features but is full of verbal
felicities. The prologue, common to both versions, is without precedent
in Italian operatic dramaturgy for its metrical variety and grandiose
scope. Nerone exists in two versions: in five acts, as in the
printed libretto of 1901, and in four acts, as in the printed score. The
excised fifth act, for which Boito sketched music, presents Nero playing
Aeschylus's Orestes while Rome burns. The four-act version ends with the
death of the Christian convert Rubria. All in all, Nerone possesses
great originality, vividly contrasting pagan magic, imperial corruption
and Christian caritas. It is arguably Boito's finest achievement.