The process of rehearsing at La Scala is a very long one, as it is done in the most conscientious manner: in the case of Mefistofele it was extraordinarily long, owing to the enormous difficulties the chorus and the orchestra had to grapple with; partial and general rehearsals amounted, if we remember right, to fifty-two, and during the many weeks spent in this way, all the interpreters had grown so accustomed to Boito's style, and his music had become so clear and familiar to them, that their heart warmed toward the young composer, they thought him the greatest composer in Italy, and answered to the numerous questions directed to them by known and unknown persons about the merit of the new opera, 'a second Guglielmo Tell.' 'Mefistofele' had absorbed the attention of all Milan, and of all musicians and amateurs of Italy: all seats and standing places had been sold weeks before the performance, and never after or before has been witnessed such an interest taken in the production of a young composer's first, opera. In order to centre entirely the public interest in Boito, it was decided to make a breach of custom and let the composer conduct his own work; and another breach of custom was made by publishing and selling the libretto a few days before the performance. The first edition was bought up in a few hours, and eagerly, almost savagely, read, commented on, dissected, submitted to the most minute analysis. Boito, in poetry as well as in music, belonged to the advanced school, so-called 'dell' avvenire': as everywhere else, in Italy also, the poet's 'dell' avvenire' were not looked at very kindly, and in Milan less than in any other Italian town, because the Milanese were justly proud of their great citizen Alessandro Manzoni, the author of 'I promessi sposi,' who at that time was still to be seen taking his afternoon walk on the bastioni every day, and of whom it was given out that the poets of the new school did not entertain a sufficiently reverential opinion—a statement which, if it was in a certain measure true as regarded some of the young poets, was not so for Boito. An incident may be related here which will show at once the natural modesty of Boito, and his keen and quick appreciation of what is really beautiful in itself even when expressed in the style of a school diametrically opposed to his own. A few months after his poems had been published, or rather republished, in Turin, he was one evening walking with a couple of friends and the talk was of poetry. One of his friends, alluding to the justly famous stanza by Manzoni in 'Ermengarda's death,'
O Masa errante, o tepidi
Lavacri d' Acquisgrano, etc.,
made some remarks and said it was a little old-fashioned: 'Well, it may be so,' interposed Boito, 'yet I would rather have written that single stanza, than all my Libro dei versi.' Notwithstanding, his poems created in the general public and in old Alessandro Manzoni himself an excellent impression, and since the poet had fully come up to the great expectations of the public, the curiosity to hear what the musician had done was kindled to the highest degree.
The long-expected day came at length, and though the performance was to begin at 7.30, shortly after 2 o'clock the fortunate possessors of unnumbered seats could already be seen to gather near the large doors, in order to secure the best places. Boito's appearance was the signal for an applause as spontaneous as it was unanimous, that began simultaneously in all quarters of the house, and lasted several minutes. During all the prologue perfect silence pervaded the whole house, and an attempt to applaud the 'vocal scherzo' was instantly suppressed; the chorus and orchestra sang and played magnificently, and the effect seemed irresistible, and yet even towards the very end not the slightest guess could be given as to the result, so that the nervousness of all the admirers and friends of Boito was increasing every minute; but when the choir gave out the last chord of E major, there came such a sudden thunder of applause that the last bars were perfectly inaudible, though played fortissimo by the full orchestra and military band. Six times Boito had to bow his acknowledgment, and yet the sound of applause still rang for minutes through the house; the cheering was taken up in the piazza outside the theatre, and it even reached the surrounding caffès, where hundreds of musicians had gathered with their friends to be in advance of any intelligence.
The friends of Boito were wild with excitement, and prophesied the triumph of the opera; but these prophecies were not destined to be realised. We have already alluded to the intrinsic reasons that made the original 'Mefistofele' unfit for the stage; in addition to these there was a very powerful accidental one that hastened the fall of the work, i. e. the utter inadequacy of the interpreters of the chief characters.
The first act did not produce any impression, only it went a good way to cool down the enthusiasm: the garden scene in the second act displeased the public, who contrasted it with the parallel scene in Gounod's third act, and found Boito's music decidedly inferior: the 'Sabba Romantico' turned the scales altogether. At the moment of Mefistofele's coronation the wizards, witches, and all the infernal crews knelt down, and satirising the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, sang the plainsong of the 'Tantum ergo.' From a poetical and musical point of view it was a splendid effect, but it was unquestionably in very bad taste to parody one of the most popular hymns of the church. The audience considered it as irreverent, lost all patience, and began to hiss as lustily and heartily as they had applauded before. Boito's partisans stood him in good stead, and kept up to the very end of the opera a strong opposition to the majority, but this of course served only to increase the disturbance. Challenges were exchanged, resulting in duels the next morning, the confusion and clamour in the theatre reached such a pitch that during the fourth and fith act it was at times utterly impossible to hear either