Boito began consideration of an opera on the Faustian theme after completing his studies at the Milan Conservatory in 1861. Mefistofele is one of many pieces of classical music based on the Faust legend, and like many other composers, Boito used Goethe's version as his starting point. He was an admirer of Richard Wagner, and like him chose to write his own libretto, something which was virtually unheard of in Italian opera up to that time.
The most popular earlier work based on the legend was Gounod's opera Faust, which Boito regarded as a superficial and frivolous treatment of a profound subject. Furthermore, Boito was contemptuous of what he saw as the low operatic standards prevailing in Italy at that time, and he determined to make his new work distinctive, both musically and intellectually, from anything that had been heard before. He hoped that it would be a wake-up call and an inspiration to other young Italian composers.
Mefistofele premiered on March 5, 1868 at La Scala, Milan under the baton of the composer himself, despite his lack of experience and skill as a conductor. As the evening progressed the hostility of the audience, unfamiliar with Boito’s avant-garde musical style and unimpressed by many of the scenes (notably the scene in the emperor's court), steadily increased. Furthermore the work was far too long and the cast inadequate for the complexities of the music. When the curtain finally came down well after midnight it was clear that the premiere had been nothing short of a fiasco. After just two performances (the second one was split over two nights), the opera was withdrawn.
Boito immediately set to work revising his opera, greatly reduced its length and making many scenes smaller in scale. For instance, he removed the entire original act 4 and rewrote act 5 as an epilogue, adding the duet Lontano, lontano in the process. Faust was changed from a baritone to a tenor.
The revised version was premiered in Bologna on 4 October,1875, this time sung by what is generally regarded to be a very fine cast, and was an immediate success. This change in reception is thought to be partly due to Boito's revisions making the opera more traditional in style, and also to the Italian audience having become familiar with, and more willing to accept, developments in opera associated with Wagner.
Boito made further minor revisions during 1876, and this version was first performed in Venice on May 13, 1876. The first British performance took place at Her Majesty's Theatre, London on 6 July,1880 and the American premiere was on 16 November,1880 in Boston. Thereafter Boito continued to make small changes until the final definitive production in Milan on 25 May,1881.
Mefistofele is nowadays generally regarded as the second most popular work based on Goethe, but has never achieved the widespread popularity of Gounod's Faust.
A heavenly chorus praises God the Creator. Mefistofele scornfully declares that he can win the soul of Faust. His challenge is accepted by the Forces of Good.
The aged Dr. Faust and his pupil Wagner are watching the Easter celebrations in the main square in Frankfurt. Faust senses that they are being followed by a mysterious friar, about whom he senses something evil. Wagner dismisses his master’s feelings of unease and as darkness falls they return to Faust’s home
Faust is in his study, deep in contemplation. His thoughts are disturbed in dramatic fashion by the sudden appearance of the sinister friar, who he now recognizes as a manifestation of the Devil (Mefistofele). Far from being terrified, Faust is intrigued and enters into a discussion with Mefistofele culminating in an agreement by which he will give his soul to the devil on his death in return for worldly bliss for the remainder of his life.
Restored to his youth, Faust has infatuated Margareta, an unsophisticated village girl. She is unable to resist his seductive charms and agrees to drug her mother with a sleeping draught and meet him for a night of passion. Meanwhile Mefistofele amuses himself with Martha, another of the village girls.
Mefistofele has carried Faust away to witness a Witches’ Sabbath on the Brocken mountain. The devil mounts his throne and proclaims his contempt for the World and all its worthless inhabitants. As the orgy reaches its climax Faust sees a vision of Margareta, apparently in chains and with her throat cut. Mefistofele reassures him that the vision was a false illusion.
Faust’s vision had been true. Margareta lies in a dismal cell, her mind in a state of confusion and despair. She has been imprisoned for poisoning her mother with the sleeping draught supplied by Faust and for drowning the baby she had borne him. Faust begs Mefistofele to help them escape together. They enter the cell and at first Margareta does not recognize her rescuers. Her joy at being reunited with Faust turns to horror when she sees Mefistofele and recognizes that he is the Devil. Refusing to succumb to further evil, Margareta begs for divine forgiveness. She collapses to the cell floor as the Celestial choir proclaims her redemption.
Mefistofele has now transported Faust back in time to Ancient Greece. Helen of Troy and her followers are enjoying the luxurious and exotic surroundings on the banks of a magnificent river. Faust, attired more splendidly than ever, is easily able to win the heart of the beautiful princess. In a passionate outpouring they declare their undying love and devotion to each other.
Back in his study Faust, once more an old man, reflects that neither in the world of reality or of illusion was he able to find the perfect experience he craved. He feels that the end of his life is close, but desperate for his final victory, Mefistofele urges him to embark on more exotic adventures. For a moment Faust hesitates, but suddenly seizing his Bible he cries out for God’s forgiveness. Mefistofele has been thwarted; he disappears back into the ground as Faust dies and the Celestial choir once more sings of ultimate redemption.
An excerpt of Margherita's aria "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" (Act III) was used in the opening of the 1997 song "Drifting Away" by Faithless.