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There's more to French opera than 'Carmen,' as several releases show

By Thor Eckert Jr. / January 18, 1983

New York

French opera keeps a hold on the public by means mostly of Bizet's ''Carmen'' and Offenbach's ''The Tales of Hoffmann'' these days. Gounod's ''Faust'' has been banished from the Metropolitan Opera, though the company has successfully mounted Poulenc's ''Dialogues of the Carmelites,'' a work to be seen in San Francisco (in the Met staging) this fall. The New York City Opera has made a big hit out of Bizet's ''The Pearl Fishers.'' Few houses have bothered with Massenet's ''Manon'' very recently. If it weren't for Alfredo Kraus and Joan Sutherland, many works unusual and even those once considered quite common, would not be mounted at all.

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The record industry straddles the line as well. If a vocal superstar the likes of Miss Sutherland wants to sing unusual repertoire, the listening and buying public can have a chance at obscure Massenet. Thanks to her, we have that composer's ''Esclarmonde,'' and more recently ''Le Roi de Lahore.'' The latter work was Massenet's first smash hit - the work that put him on the operatic map. It is full of rousing scenes and ensembles; some marvelous solos for the principals; and vivid, interesting melodies.

The set (London 3LDR - 10025 - digital, 3 records) boasts Miss Sutherland, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Luis Lima, and James Morris, with Richard Bonynge conducting the National Philharmonic. It's a bang-up job in every way, full of fire and drama. Bonynge plays up the ultra-theatrical side impressively without shirking the haunting, melting lyricism. Miss Sutherland is not in the freshest voice, but it makes little difference. It's a score worth getting to know, and it's presented here with great panache.

''Werther'' is another Massenet work that pops up sporadically - usually when a house has a tenor who wants to sing it. When the tenor is Alfredo Kraus, who could object? He is the Werther of the day. He fully understands the poetry, the brooding introversion, the character's inability to do more than rail against situations he has not the force to do something about. On a recent Angel set (SZLX - 3894 - 3 records) he is given a good framework within which to offer his legendary performance, and he emerges in every way the star. Tatiana Troyanos's fast vibrato and sultry approach to Charlotte robs the part of nuance and depth. Matteo Manuguerra and Christine Barbaux are the strong Albert and Sophie. The London Philharmonic Orchestra plays well for Michel Plasson, though he lacks the requisite spontaneity and sense of passion to make this score really come to life.

Riccardo Chailly's conducting is more to the point on the DG performance ( 2709 091 - 3 records) - volatile and explosive, yet tender and moody when needed. The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra gives him its all, and he scales the work to a large theater. This is most necessary when the Charlotte is Russian mezzo Elena Obraztsova, who gives a brilliant, larger-than-life account of the work. Those seeking intimacy will have to look elsewhere. Those seeking a full-blooded interpretation with plenty of vocal style and surprisingly good French need look no further. She is very much the star of the performance, for Placido Domingo's performance in the title role is subdued and a bit strained in the upper reaches. Arleen Auger (Sophie) and Kurt Moll (Baillie) give splendid support, Franz Grundheber (Albert) considerably less.

Frederica von Stade's Charlotte could be construed as intimate. But intimacy means small-scale not bland, and on the new Philips set (6769 051 - 3 records), though her French is diligent, she reveals neither the personality nor the evenness of voice to make a really satisfying heroine. Her Werther is Jose Carreras, and he, too, turns in a faceless, though very well-sung performance - the voice sounding fresher than it has of late. Isobel Buchanan makes much more of Sophie than usual, Thomas Allen somewhat less of Albert. Sir Colin Davis leads a handsome performance - surely his best operatic performance to date. The Covent Garden forces play handsomely, and the sound is particularly sumptuous.