As hard as it’s trying to sell 20th-century opera this season, the Lyric still has to make safe bets to pay the rent–and these days few bets are safer than Samuel Ramey as the devil. For a decade now, the Kansas-born bass has sung the title role in this Robert Carsen production of Boito’s Mefistofele, which was unveiled in 1988 in Geneva and first mounted at the Lyric in ’91. The role is so much Ramey’s–an iconic identification as indelible as “John Wayne equals cowboy”–that even when he’s not singing Mefistofele he’s singing parts like Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, as seen at the Lyric in 1996. (He’ll also be ringing in the millennium at the Civic Opera House with his well-traveled “Date With the Devil” concert.) Boito’s Mefistofele is a complicated, conflicted manipulator–he knows how to throw a swell orgy but his sense of self is wrapped up in his rivalry with God. He’s the most fully realized character in this adaptation of Goethe’s epic poem, which is as faithful to the source as a three-hour operatic near masterpiece can be. Boito, a man of letters who wrote the libretti for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, was a serious but not profound composer with a predilection for flamboyance–a Cecil B. De Mille type. He understood the need for spectacle and dramatic confrontation in grand opera; his Mefistofele is a sort of theater director who conjures a variety of scenes to entrance and torment Faust. Ramey’s performance at the Lyric in ’91 was mesmerizing: he strode about bare-chested, wearing bright red pants and horns to match, and his voice was in tip-top shape–supple, insinuating, and dripping with menace. There’s no reason to believe he’ll be any less commanding this time, as he sounded splendid in a recital last month at Orchestra Hall. The cast also includes tenor Richard Margison as Faust, soprano Daniela Dessi as Margherita, and soprano Elizabeth Byrne as Elena. Peter McClintock, a Met staff director, is supervising this revival, which runs through January; Gyorgy Gyorivanyi Rath, a Hungarian conductor based in Italy, is making his American operatic debut. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest.