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The Met at 100: revivals could stand a bit of reviving

By Thor Eckert Jr. / December 7, 1983

New York

During its centennial season, the Metropolitan Opera is under closer scrutiny than usual. This year, because of the publicity surrounding the event, more people than ever are viewing the company as the nation's operatic treasure - as the finest presenter of opera in the land, and maybe in the world.

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Is the company living up to its responsibilities as a museum for the art form? Are its ''frames'' (productions) being kept in top order, revival after revival?

At the Chicago Lyric Opera, no production is brought back without having the original director on hand. At the Met, a roster of staff directors re-creates the direction from a plan book made up during the rehearsal period of a new production. Rarely does the originator return to oversee his production.

John Dexter has always returned to supervise his stagings, and so he supervised the revival of Poulenc's ''Dialogues of the Carmelites.'' This production was to have been the beginning of what, for the Met, would be a revolutionary new approach to operas, particularly the more contemporary ones. These stagings were to incorporate the newest in theatrical trends - minimal sets, expressive action, superior lighting - with great singing and acting. Unfortunately, Dexter was unable to make the style work in traditional opera. But happily, this ''Dialogues'' remains a handsome achievement, looking even fresher and more vital than when first seen in 1977.

There were numerous cast changes this season. (''Dialogues'' will be broadcast live from the Met on Saturday, Dec. 10. Check local listings.) The opera was once again performed in English, and diction was generally quite acceptable. In the case of William Lewis, it was exceptional, as was his performance on all counts as the Chevalier de la Force. Frederica von Stade is new to the pivotal role of Blanche de la Force. She responded to Dexter's direction with subtlety and vivid expressiveness, even if the voice thinned out drastically as the evening progressed.

Patricia Craig was Mme. Lidoine, and for the first time since this production was staged one could understand most of that character's words. Miss Craig, ideally too lightweight of voice for the part, nevertheless managed to be sympathetic and effective. Mignon Dunn, in her first try at the potentially show-stealing role of Mme. de Croissy, proved only moderately effective. Gwynn Cornell made a gruff, strong Mother Marie.

The galvanizing force in this revival, Mr. Dexter notwithstanding, proved to be conductor Manuel Rosenthal, whose coloristic and dramatic sense revealed an even stronger profile to Poulenc's score than one might have thought possible. This evening was the new Met at its best - a fine production revived with care so that, despite numerous cast changes and very spotty singing, the production looks as good as it did on the very first night.

Donizetti's ''La Fille du Regiment'' also found the original director, Sandro Sequi, back to put the production's original Marie (Joan Sutherland) through her paces. She reminded us anew that great singing is not merely a question of tonal freshness but of musicianship, projection, and the ability to make music sound fresh and new. Miss Sutherland is a gifted comedienne as well, and she played wonderfully off of her colleagues.