Sets, not vocal style, star as Met's new season gets under way

On the eve of the Metropolitan Opera Company's 100th season - a landmark for any arts organization in the United States - the Met finds itself in the midst of a major shift in priorities, a shift that most important opera houses around the world are undergoing as well.

As the important singing voices that keep opera houses alive are becoming scarcer, companies are looking toward other ways of maintaining standards, quite often on the production side. But the Met's attempt at revitalizing the theatrical part of its operation by bringing back British stage director John Dexter did not work.

The Met used to have, in director Nathaniel Merrill and designer Robert O'Hearn, a production team that understood the needs of this house. And it is that team's sturdy ''Der Rosenkavalier'' that opened this season with the celebrated Kiri Te Kanawa's first Met Marschallin. (The opera will be simulcast on PBS: ''Live From the Met,'' Thursday, Oct. 7, at 8 p.m. Check local TV and FM listings.)

The collaboration between renowned designer Ming Cho Lee and August Everding led, unfortunately, to only two productions: the monumental 1975 Mussorgsky ''Boris Godunov'' (revived the second night of the current season), and a ''Lohengrin'' a few years later. Another designer who knew how to fill that big stage effortlessly (albeit in the old house) was the late Eugene Berman, whose designs for Verdi's ''La Forza del Destino'' were seen the third night of the new season. (Berman, once a standard-setter for Verdi operas at the Met, is now, unhappily, known only by this ''Forza'' and a classic ''Don Giovanni.'')

The Met tries to get the original directors back now and then to oversee revivals. Thus, Mr. Everding revitalized much of the choral acting in his ''Boris''; his hand could be seen in the interactions of the individual characters, even if most of the singers seemed to be on automatic pilot. Mr. Dexter's work for ''Forza'' is neither weaker nor stronger than it was when first seen in 1975. Mr. Merrill's ''Der Rosenkavalier'' was never the essence of sophistication and subtlety. Now, under Bruce Donnell's redirection, it has lamentably slumped to the level of a Keystone Kops romp.

Music director James Levine was at the helm of the Strauss and Verdi evenings. The latter found him in expected form - he is a fine Verdian, and though the sweep and passion of the score were somewhat understated, he was at all times considerate of his singers in terms of tempos, dynamics, and accompaniment. His least satisfactory assignments to date have been his outings in Richard Strauss, with the exception of the stunning ''Elektra'' that heralded the return of Birgit Nilsson to the Met in 1980.

Nonetheless, there was nothing to prepare one for the elongated, massive, inelegant ''Rosenkavalier'' Levine offered on opening night, marked by clattering climaxes and a nearly 4 1/2-hour running time. Conductor James Conlon had his work cut out for him in the Mussorgsky, since the house uses the composer's own version rather than the more opulent Rimsky-Korsakov revision (now wrongly vilified in musical circles). The composer's lean, arid orchestral style was not meant to project into so large a theater as the Met, but Mr. Conlon was at least intermittently successful in making it all sound fuller than it actually is.

Needless to say, singing is where the obvious strengths of any opera house lie. Happily, Miss Te Kanawa is back in the Met fold, even if this time around the role chosen is less than ideal. (That ideal role comes later in the season with the new production of Strauss' ''Arabella.'') She is not yet a fully matured Marschallin, although the core is surely there and her voice is one of the finest of its kind on any stage. When she has learned to project words with true meaning, to infuse the Straussian line with real passions and sentiments, this already promising sketch will fill out into something meaningful and memorable.

Kurt Moll possesses one of the few genuine rolling bass voices around. He sings the low ''E's'' of Baron Ochs effortlessly and fully, and the entire role exploits his voice thrillingly. Tatiana Troyanos repeated her familiar Octavian, with less sumptuousness in the upper reaches of the voice than usual. Judith Blegen repeated her long-familiar and ravishingly vocalized Sophie. The lesser roles were consistently overplayed and undervocalized.

The ''Boris'' was not distinguished vocally. Even the immensely tall Martti Talvela was vocally out of sorts, although his portrayal of the tormented Boris remains earnest and imposing. Only James Atherton offered a fully rounded performance, giving the Simpleton a genuine poignance.

It is sad that Leona Mitchell should have been offered Leonora in ''Forza'' this early in her career. Like Katia Ricciarelli before her, she is being pushed into dramatic roles her sumptuous lyric soprano is hardly ready to tackle. Verdi's grandiose lines and strenuous demands overtaxed her: The voice tended to hit notes sharp of the true pitch, and also to flutter under pressure. Throughout, one sensed in this valiant try a lack of power to cope with the sweeping climaxes, or to sustain the long line. Miss Mitchell possesses too radiant an instrument to allow this sort of misguidance to continue unchecked.

Otherwise, the ''Forza'' had its share of strengths and weaknesses. Bonaldo Giaiotti had fleeting pitch problems in his solid Guardiano; Isola Jones made an uncommonly shrill Preziosilla; and Gabriel Bacquier offered a vital, robust Melitone - he is becoming one of the great character singers, after a long career as a leading baritone.

Giuseppe Giacomini's potent tenor flooded the house with ringing tone and commendable taste. His acting improves from year to year, and in these tenor-starved times, he is practially a treasure. Sherrill Milnes offered a superb ''Urna fatale,'' one of the finest of Verdi baritone arias, but had his share of problems with the rest of the role. 'Hamlet

'Earlier in the month, at the City Opera, Mr. Milnes sang three performances of composer Ambroise Thomas's hokey telling of ''Hamlet.'' The opera has been neglected for a long time, and yet it is a superb vehicle for a dazzling baritone. It could have been written especially for Mr. Milnes, so superbly did he act and sing it. What's more, his enunciation (in the excellent Andrew Porter translation) was crystalline. It's always gratifying when a star singer not celebrated for histrionic subtlety suddenly unveils a performance of this magnificence and strength.

The Fabrizio Melano production unfolded unevenly on Carl Toms's revolving set , which looks better on the City Opera stage than it did in San Diego, where it was first seen. Ashley Putnam had the other star role, Ophelie, and she handled it with a dutiful caution that spared her the usual compendium of vocal troubles that have marked her City Opera dates in the past.

The rest of the cast wavered between adequate and poor, but in the pit, Bruno Rigacci revealed himself as a conductor of some strength and dramatic force. As City Opera outings go, it was conspicuously above average - just the sort of unusual work for an important star which the company should indulge itself in more often.

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