The Met at 100: revivals could stand a bit of reviving
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.
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.
Her Tonio, Alfredo Kraus, offered a lesson in taste and suavity at an age where most singers have already called it quits: Be it the nine gleaming high ''C''s in the first aria, or the spun-out phrases and sustaining of mood, this was exalted artistry through and through. The silly comedy that was the charm of Mr. Sequi's staging was evident from all participants. But the garish lighting robbed the painted drop sets of any illusion and charm.
The Met's staging of Verdi's ''La Traviata'' may be only three years old, but it looks as if it has been around forever. Always an unimaginative staging, it has even less dramatic edge than before. Kiri Te Kanawa was, shockingly, allowed to appear in her own costumes, which clashed with the period of the production. And it was not really well cast, despite the presence of some of the biggest names on stage today. In matters of vocal type and temperament, Miss Te Kanawa is not an ideal Violetta. Nonetheless, her obviously stressful singing of the first act came as a surprise. In fact, she reached her peak only in the final act.
It was also disturbing that Nicolai Gedda has never been at his best in Verdi. And at this point in his noble career, there are roles other than Alfredo that would properly show his still considerable vocal assets. Veteran Cornell MacNeil has rarely sounded more uncomfortable as Germont pere. Sir John Pritchard's conducting lacked energy and attentiveness toward his singers.
But the saddest spectacle of recent times was watching what was left of the once-magnificent production of Britten's ''Peter Grimes'' unfold. The late Sir Tyrone Guthrie production has all but been abandoned. Mr. Pritchard's conducting proved formless, listless. The sets looked run down and were very poorly lighted. The once-breathtaking sense of a village re-created on a stage has vanished: Those meticulously developed characterizations have lapsed into careless caricatures.
The chorus, which used to be a marvel of individuality, performed as an anonymous lump. In the supporting roles, an artist such as Jean Kraft was allowed to abandon the intricate makeup for Mrs. Sedley, and generally turned her into a slapstick cipher. Apparently, either nobody remembered, or else nobody cared enough, to do anything about it.
Even Jon Vickers, for whom the production was created in 1967, seemed to be walking through a staging that he clearly remembers from performances past. His is still a noble characterizaton of the outcast at odds with a narrow-minded society: The mad scene remains one of his very finest achievements. How sad it is that he will no longer be singing the role at the Met. His Ellen Orford, the exceptional Elisabeth Soderstrom, no longer commands sufficient voice to fill the house, and she brought a disappointing lack of warmth to the role. Thomas Stewart's moving Balstrode, Jerome Hines's authoritative Swallow, and Dale Duesing's Ned Keene were the few high points of the large supporting cast.
The Met, as the premiere house in this land, needs a better system for reviving its productions. A lifeless production never has a chance to take wing, even with a great cast. It simply means that directorial talent must be recruited that will care about these productions so as to bring them back with life and vigor. It also means that the original directors must be brought back regularly to oversee revivals. It is the only way to ensure that the sort of deterioration in productions being seen all too reguarly at the Met can be checked once and for all.