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The Devil Gets His Due: Boito's 'Mefistofele'

From time to time, people come along whose stories are so unique and vivid that their names actually become entries in the dictionary. One prime example is Faust, who made a disastrous deal with the devil — the sort of dubious arrangement now known as a "Faustian" bargain.

The original Faust is said to have been an eccentric scholar, Dr. Johann Georg Faust, who lived in Germany in the early 1500s. His legend showed up in a 1604 play by Christopher Marlowe, a classic drama by Goethe and a popular opera by Gounod — all of which are named after the good doctor.

Still, no matter what you call his story, the character of Faust often has a hard time living up to his star billing. That's not surprising, when you consider that the story's other main character is the devil himself. And there was at least one opera composer, Arrigo Boito, who recognized that.

Boito is best known as a librettist — and for good reason. He wrote the texts for Verdi's late operas Otello and Falstaff, two of the greatest operas ever written. But Boito also took a shot at composing operas of his own, including one that's based on the Faust legend.

His original idea was to write two operas around that one story. The first would be called Margherita, after the unfortunate young woman seduced by Faust. The other was to be Elena, named for a reborn Helen of Troy, one of the many temptations the devil conjures for Faust as part of their seamy bargain.

Ultimately, though, Boito settled on a single opera, named after the character who truly drives the action — the devil himself. He called the opera Mefistofele, and made the title character one of the great bass-baritone roles in opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production starring the Georgian bass Paata Burchaladze as Mefistofele, soprano Barbara Haveman as Margherita, and tenor Antonello Palombi as Faust. It comes to us from the Royal Opera of Wallonie, in Liege, Belgium.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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