BOITO: Mefistofele. Eva Marton, Placido Domingo, Samuel Ramey, et al.; Hungaroton Opera Chorus, Hungarian State Orchestra, Giuseppe Patane conducting. Sony S2K-44983 (two CDs).

"Mefistofele," Arrigo Boito's setting of the Faust legend, is one of those sleeper operas. It's little celebrated and seldom performed, but it's the kind of work that you hear, your ears prick up, you play it again with a sense of discovery and soon you are compulsively repeating it.Many public television viewers made its acquaintance with last winter's telecast of the San Francisco Opera's outstanding staging, with Samuel Ramey as the Devil. Surely there is no finer Mefistofele before the public today, with his big, steady, focused bass and a dramatic force so intense that it cuts right through into the aural realm.

None of Boito's other operas, of which he wrote a handful, has any popular recognition today. Much of his reputation rests upon the great librettos he wrote for other, more fecund composers, including two for Verdi - "Falstaff" and "Otello."

And Boito always denigrated himself, because he felt he had to work terribly hard to achieve his musical effects; apparently inspiration did not come to him readily. Yet much of "Mefistofele" sounds original, spontaneous, heartfelt, brilliant, filled with invention. The annotator rightly observes that Boito is most like Berlioz in his effects; and truly there is a certain kindred urgency in his "Mefistofele" and Berlioz' "Damnation of Faust."

Boito set his story in a few big, telling scenes - the prologue in heaven, the temptation of Faust, the seduction of Marguerite, the witches' sabbath, the death of Marguerite, Faust's dalliance with Helen of Troy and finally his death and redemption. Those scenes are loaded with great music - the choral prologue (and apotheosis), several fine arias for Faust and Mefistofele, Marguerite's "L'altra Notte,' the duet "Lontano, lontano" and Helen's vivid description of the destruction of Troy.

The recording could not be happier in its Mefistofele, who again and again rises to histrionic and vocal heights. Even his fiendish whistles are bloodcurdling.

Equally fine is tenor Placido Domingo as Faust, in a role that is ideal for him in timbre, heft and emotional content. Domingo has good Faustian identification and makes his non-hero tormented, passionate, world weary, and finally poignant, as he achieves his "one precious moment that is fair."

Only the Marguerite/Elena of Eva Marton is below par. For Marguerite at least a pristine quality is desirable, however big the voice may be. Dramatic soprano is all right, though for the innocence of the character, lyric seems the better choice. Marton's voice has become smoky, over-ripe and tending to vibrato, and her diction is so faulty that you can't recognize the Italian words while you are looking right at them.

Minor roles are effectively sung by mostly Hungarian singers, particularly the Pantalis of Eva Farkas, in her duet with Elena.

The late Giuseppe Patane discharges this music with great expressiveness, beginning with a prologue that unfolds and mounts thrillingly. The music is Italianate yet elegant, and Patane balances the two elements beautifully. His choir never fails him, and indeed the Hungarian temperament seems well suited to the supernatural type of musical tale.