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Arrigo Boito Changes Hats, with 'Mefistofele'

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These days, when people think highly of something, they often describe it as "iconic," and the term is sometimes thrown around a bit loosely -- to the point where it often seems overblown.

Yet, there are times when the term can be appropriate -- say, when describing a hit song that changes the course of popular music; or a ninth-inning, seventh-game World Series home run; or an unforgettable moment in a great opera. That is, something that comes along once in a long while, and leaves an indelible impression.

This week, we're featuring the work of a remarkable artist responsible for more than his share of truly iconic moments, including highlights from at least three striking operas: the searing aria "Suicidio!" from LA GIOCONDA; the terrifying "Credo" that Iago sings in Otello; and the scathing monologue "L'onore," sung by the title character in Falstaff.

So -- given that the first of those operas is by Ponchielli, and the other two are by Verdi -- the artist in question was, plainly, not a composer. Who was it? Well, as it happens, the librettos for all three of those operas, and thus the words behind their three, iconic moments, were written by the same man: Arrigo Boito.

Boito was a prominent figure in 19th-century Italian artistic circles. He was famous as a poet and critic, and especially as a librettist. Had he written nothing but the librettos for Verdi's Otello and Falstaff, he would surely have earned the undying gratitude of opera lovers everywhere. Still, while working with Verdi and other composers, Boito got a musical itch of his own, and in the 1860's, he decided to try his hand as an opera composer.

Like Verdi's two Shakespeare-based operas, Boito's own opera also has a plotline straight from a literary classic: Faust, Goethe's timeless story of a deal with the devil. And it's the devil who gave the opera its name -- Mefistofele. Fittingly, the opera also has its own, iconic moment, in a scene-stealer that every operatic bass aspires to sing. It's the aria "Son Io Spirito," where the devil introduces himself to Faust as, "the Spirit who denies everything."

Boito originally planned to write two operas around that one story. One would be called Margherita, after the unfortunate young woman seduced by Faust. The other would be Elena, named for another woman Mefistofele uses to tempt Faust: a reborn Helen of Troy.

Ultimately, Boito settled on a single opera including both characters -- and at first, that seemed like a mistake. The opera's premiere was in 1868, at La Scala in Milan. It was a disaster. The cast wasn't up to snuff, and everyone seemed to think the whole thing was just too long.

So Boito revised the opera, and took his time doing it. A shorter version premiered in Bologna in 1875. Further improvements were made as the opera went to Venice, London, New York, and Boston. Finally, the drama made its way back to La Scala in 1881 -- and by then, it was a hit.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Boito's Mefistofele in a production by the Bavarian State Opera, from the National Theater in Munich. Bass René Pape stars in the title role, with tenor Joseph Calleja as Faust, and soprano Kristine Opolais as Margherita.