The Met on the road: something has to be done

The Met must see to it that another spring of '80 does not happen again. Ever. The Metropolitan Opera management considers its annual spring tour a vital part of its work. Since James Levine has become director of music, he has made a commitment to travel with every other tour. Last year, when he conducted four of the seven operas, the Met delivered one of the strongest tours in recent memory.

But the tour just ended has been a non-Levine year, and no matter how earnestly the company desires to remain consistent from tour year to tour year, this past one was mediocre. The strength of any opera company is in the stars assembled, and this year, the only two major stars on tour were Luciano Pavarotti and Fiorenza Cosotto.

In no production taken on tour was casting very far removed from what has happened or is about to happen in New York, so the company can rightly say that no "cheating" has occurred on this tour. But just as this tour has been problematic, so has the past season at the Met itself.

So difficult has it been to put together an acceptable "Aida" cast, for instance, that it is pulling the opera out of repertoire for at least four seasons. There is even some talk that the John Dexter production will never be seen again. When it trudges along as listlessly and as risibly as it did opening night of the Boston run, no wonder. It was a conspicuous assemblage of the sort of cliches one had thought opera had gotten away from this past decade.

The Aida, Rita Orlandi-Malaspina, has a large, not especially wisely or tellingly used voice that remained tenaciously out of tune at too many crucial moments. Her acting was of that ancient one-arm-for-rage, two-for-sadness school.

Her Radames, Giorgio Lamberti, also resorted to that stolid gesticulation, and in his hollow, stentorian delivery caught nothing of Verdi's splendid heroism. Mignon Dunn tamed many of Amneris's wilder moments effectively, but hers is still a rather too frantic creation. Cornell MacNeil delivered one of his usual authoritative, slightly dispassionate Amonasros. Only James Morris's Ramfis rang with any true authority -- almost as if from another operatic world, vocally and histrionically.

Unfortunately, "Aida" pretty much set the pace for the whole week. The only emphatic exception was the triumphant "Billy Budd," which even on reduced, immobile tour sets proved a devastating operatic experience. The vigor and vitality of John Dexter's only remarkable Met production emerged untarnished, and one almost did not miss the impact of the Met set rising into four sections. On tour, the curtains close -- prompting, in Boston, a wave of applause and a din of chatter until the curtains parted again.

On tour, the cast was almost identical to New york's, dominated again by Richard Cassilly's magnificent Captain Vere -- what an important artist he is, and how valuable he is to the house! This is a true ensemble effort, however, that frames the fine principal performances. Thus, Cassily and James Morris as Claggart had a chance to shimmer. Morris has done no finer work at the house. Would that Richard Stillwell was up to the demands of the title role, but he always tires before opera's end, and his performance has become quite artificial in its characterization.

When a "Billy Budd" is not coalescing the Met forces, the company tends to chug along, and the results can be at best competent, or else rather inept. The Cosotto "Carmen" proved to be fun, because of her vivid, large-scaled, fiery heroine.

Pavarotti was on hand to carry two shows -- "L'Elisir D'Amore" and "Un Ballo in Maschera." The former skirted disaster most of the evening, for around the boisterously personable tenor moved a cast of unusual insipidness. Judith Blegen seemed unable to break through vocal and histrionic reticence. Mario Sereni's Belcore is no longer even routine. And Domenico Trimarchi's Dulcamarra evinced not a shred of what it takes to be even an adequate basso buffo.

In the "Ballo" Pavarotti had Gilda Cruz-Romo and Louis Quilico to partner him , both experienced in their roles. She had one of her erratic evenings -- moments of thrilling power and presence countered by others of wild emoting and even wilder vocalizing. Quilico embodies solidity, if not tremendous excitement , and Betsy Norden, filling in for an ailing Blegen, used her too-slender voice better than one might have imagined as Oscar, though the reediness of the top is distressing.

It was Pavarotti's show in both cases. He mugged and upstaged furiously in "L'Elisir," and one was desperately grateful for every shred of life he jammed into it. His "Ballo" had moments of true inelegance -- surprising for him -- and others of melting grandeur. That he has become too conscious of his impact on an audience is lamentable, as is the fact that his voice is constantly losing the sheen and presence it once had. But he is a star in the grand manner. He can make opera fun and special. Thus he is almost an extinct breed these days, when small-scale is in.

There was nothing glaringly wrong with "Eugene Onegin," but there was nothing especially right. Michael Devlin lacks the presence and the vocal security for a Met Onegin. Teresa Kubiak's Tatiana is more matronly than one would have wished, and John Alexander's taste and style were not quite enough to animate his Lensky this time around. Only Jerome Hines gave forth with grandiose resplendency, and this veteran of over 30 Met seasons gave this performance the only excitement.

The nadir was reached in "Hansel and Gretel," where Gail Robinson, Ariel Bybee, and Shirley Love were simply not up to their tasks in a big house: Their words (in English) were not only unintelligible but sometimes literally inaudible to two-thirds of the house. Only Allan Monk gave generously and unstintingly as the Father -- and when the father is the star of this show, something is truly amiss.

Of the various sets, the "L'Elisir" looked shopworn, the "Camren" beyond salvation (it, too, is rumored to be doomed, and quite a few years too late, given how the house has let it run down so visually and musically). "Onegin" was scenically enchanting. The "Hansel" had its share of grand moments, the "Ballo" was almost as ugly as in New York this season, and "Aida" with its suggestion that Egyptians lived in ruins way back then, will not be missed.

The lighting on tour is rudimentary. Sometimes we see too much, but the almost primitive gashes of light reveal far more on tour than Gil Wechsler allows in NEw York. And the orchestra sounds very good -- when they have a conductor they appreciate or at least follow.

Thus, "Billy Budd" sounded superb under Raymond Leppard's, baton. Michelangelo Veltri, conductor for "Carmen" and "Ballo," represents the very finest routine, and the orchestra responds to his liveliness and animation -- even if rather too roughly now and then. David Stivender conducts like all good choral directors, and that is not really enough for the Met. In "Hansel," Calvin Simmons had superb moments, and a few rough ones, too, and Nicola Rescigno was way off the mark in "L'Elisir." Curiously, Emil Tchakarov's "Onegin" was far less interesting on tour than it had been on the house where already an assessable recession in commitment could be heard this past winter.

Dramatically, only "Budd" had any edge. The "Ballo" retains a few moments, though Elijah Moshinsky's revolutionary Boston concept is full of annoying anachronisms. In "Hansel" the mother forgot to knock over the jar of milk. In "Onegin" secrets are blabbed across the stage. In "Carmen" everyone is everything in the last act -- no specific vendors, passersby, shoppers, as clearly indicated in the words. The chorus members more and more refuse to act, and no matter how well they sound -- under David Stivender they have undergone a startling transformation -- visually they are a shambles.

In secondary casting, baritone and John Darrenkamp was valuable for his stage-wise presence and strong characterizations. Bass Julien Robbins is becoming a strong asset, though he seems to be doing too much too soon, and that has too often led to damaged potentials in other singers. Robbin's potential is too great to risk at this point.

And so another tour has concluded. Next year, Levine will be back with four operas. Advance word makes it look quite enticing. But something has to be done about the alternate years, especially now that the troupe is playing the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

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