Bland productions are taking over today's opera

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The Metropolitan Opera's magnificent production of Puccini's ''La Boheme'' by Franco Zeffirelli has come under fire for being too grandiose, too ultrarealistic, even overbearing.

This is odd, yet, when thought about, not altogether unexpected. We are in diminutive times. Television has forced the scale of entertainment down to the smallest possible extreme. The emphasis on in-your-own-living-room naturalness has dictated that gestures cannot be big, that facial expressions cannot be extreme, and so on. This peculiar scale has crept onto the silver screen, where a certain blandness now pervades the performances of so many stars.

This blandness has taken over the opera world wholesale, even though operatic acting is a different beast. Here motions must be tied to the music, which is, ultimately, the real stage director for all singers. The old-fashioned sort of operatic director, which Zeffirelli fundamentally is, begins with the music.

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If a big gesture erupts in the orchestra, however, a commensurate moment is not allowed on the stage in this new look for opera. This new director stands on the apron of a large stage, rarely even thinking that the audience begins some 50 feet from that apron in a theater as large as the Met. Gestures are toned down to minimum dimensions, and the only ones who benefit from the ensuing performance are the colleagues on the stage, and perhaps the prompter. Certainly the patron in the highest balcony will get none of it.

This reduced scale has also spilled over into sets. The economics of opera being what they are, $400,000 does not go as far today. So instead of building a castle, designers make do with a cutout or a silhouette. Instead of rooms, sliding panels or folding screens substitute. Poor Mozart -- today it is almost a given that his operas will have thin, two-dimensional sets to which a lighting wizard will give color and substance.

Suddenly, enter Franco Zeffirelli, who feels ''Boheme'' is an opera about people in Paris. Their lives unfold while a virtually life-sized Paris hustles and bustles around them. It is large, meant for large performers, of whom only Renata Scotto in the first cast fit the histrionic bill. In the second cast, including Teresa Zylis-Gara as Mimi, Giuliano Ciannella as Rodolfo, Julia Migenes-Johnson as Musetta, and Brent Ellis as Marcello, no one gave a Met-caliber performance.

And at least Zeffirelli respects his composers. The new wave of opera director -- a wave that has inundated the entire opera world -- has its roots in the theater, and more often than not, stages works as if the music were of no consideration whatsoever. Andrei Serban, the noted director of an unforgettable ''Cherry Orchard,'' at the Vivian Beaumont, was given a crack at the American Opera Center's ''La Traviata'' and the results were astounding. Every cliche of modish productions was here, with not one spark of originality. Violetta says to her friends ''sit down,'' and the seated guests all stand up. The entire opera takes place in a SoHo garret. What this sort of unthinking gimmickry for its own sake achieves is anyone's guess.

Rarely do updated productions make any sort of sense, though that, too, is the rage. Imagine, therefore, the surprise of discovering that a much-heralded US premiere production of Handel's ''Orlando,'' directed by the young, inventive Peter Sellars, is indeed as splendid as promised. He has decided that a tale of magicians, heroes, myths, and romances would lack the relevancy the story had in Handel's day. So Mr. Sellars has found new ways of establishing the mood and relations by making ''Orlando'' a space-age drama, first at Cape Canaveral, then the Everglades, and finally on Mars. It is clever, occasionally too cute for its own good, but it is witty, imaginative, and all the choices and ideas come from the music. That of itself is cause for celebration, for Mr. Sellars has brought a potentially turgid opera ringingly to life.

He has been ably abetted by Craig Smith, in charge of an expert baroque orchestra, and a cast that includes the astounding Jeffrey Gall (a committed actor and a fine countertenor), the delightful Sharon Baker, James Maddalena, Pamela Gore, and Janet Brown. It is running at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge through March 13. (See review on Monitor arts page of Feb. 16).

And what about an allegedly professional operation like Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston? Zimmermann's ''Die Soldaten'' was purportedly being offered, though what emerged was neither Zimmermann's score nor Zimmermann's story. Miss Caldwell had turned a clearly structured work into a play-within-a-play, destroying the plot progression. She had not sufficiently rehearsed her orchestra. Nothing was done with the care and imagination that once marked her work. So now, a highly anticipated US premiere has done no service to opera lovers or to anyone hoping to judge for themselves whether or not ''Die Soldaten'' is as good an opera as European critics have declared it to be.

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