Ghena Dimitrova unfurls her marvelous voice in New York

The New York debut of Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova was the kind of event that people await for seasons on end. It is fitting that her first appearance in this city should come at the end of a season that began with Jessye Norman's sensational Metropolitan Opera debut and also boasted Eva Marton's first American ''Turandot,'' in Boston.

These three artists are possessors of the sort of instrument the pessimists among music chroniclers had feared were a vanished type - large! I have often noted, in this column, how opera has had to make do with smaller voices in roles that overtax them. And whereas three does not constitute a horde, at least now we have a chance to hear Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, and Berlioz sung with the size of voice suited to that music in a large house.

Miss Dimitrova's debut may have taken a lot of people by surprise. Her name has been heralded in Europe as a soprano capable of riding - even overpowering - a full Puccini orchestra without losing tonal quality. But she is also capable of reining in the voice to float those long arching phrases Verdi uses so masterfully in introspective moments.

In this country, Dimitrova has been a limited commodity, to say the least. Although she has been an important presence in Europe since the late '70s, it was not until 1981 that the United States took notice, although not at the Met: The Dallas Opera introduced her to this country as Elvira in Verdi's ''Ernani.''

Subscribers to the Bravo cable network may have seen the Verona (Italy) Arena production of Verdi's ''Nabucco,'' in which she sings the tortuous, torturing role of Abigaille. It is also the role of her operatic recording debut on the new Deutsche Grammophon (DG) ''Nabucco,'' with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting.

Not unexpectedly, Abigaille was also the role of her New York debut with the Concert Opera Orchestra, whose artistic director and conductor is Eve Queler.

Abigaille is one of the most grueling roles in the soprano literature. It needs an instrument of amplitude, of remarkable flexibility, fluid phrasing, lovely quiet tones, and savage edge to encompass the full emotional range of the role. Miss Dimitrova has been singing the role for years, and in New York, this sheer experience manifested itself in the utter confidence of the portrayal. There is not a run, a high note, or a pianissimo that holds any terrors for her. Because of this unerring security in the part, she can actually create a blazing characterization where others have merely fought to keep the voice in one piece.

In her live appearance, the walls of Carnegie Hall seemed veritably to vibrate when she unfurled the instrument, and one was awed by the fullness of the sound. Equally impressive was the way she spun out those long Verdi phrases, and the sentiment with which she imbued those phrases.

As to the performance in general, Miss Queler was in fine form. She lets this rather choppy score flow, without trying unduly to smooth over the marchlike undercurrents of the music. In truth, her reading of the score was more appealing than those on any of the three currently available commercial recordings.

Casting was rather less lofty. Allan Monk, who was replacing Matteo Manuguerra, has neither the vocal style nor heft for this (or any) Verdi role. Patricia Schuman's Fenena was less than accomplished. As Ismaele, tenor Jesus Pinto revealed a voice of more than passing promise already being misused. Thus it fell to Paul Plishka, as the priest Zaccaria, to bring further excitement to the evening, and he did not fail. This was a rafter-projected portrayal that blustered and blazed with commitment.

And in her recorded performance, the voice encompasses the same range, even if, as I said earlier, the microphones are not always kind to the upper end of her instrument. Also impressive is the haunting Nabucco of Piero Cappuccilli, and the lightweight but vocally lovely Zaccaria of Evgeny Nesterenko. Lucia Valentini Terrani struggles too audibly with the small role of Fenena, and Placido Domingo is in sour voice in the equally small role of Ismaele.

This is one of DG's less-than-noble efforts sonically, for despite the clarity of orchestral timbres, all the voices sound devoid of ambiance. Giuseppe Sinopoli (whose name appears more prominently than Verdi's) makes his operatic recording debut in a reading that accentuates the bandlike nature of the music. Unfortunately, he makes the exciting, if occasionally primitive, score something cheap and coarse.

If you happen to live near a record store that deals in imports, a lovely Bulkanton record (BOA 2064) features Miss Dimitrova in various Italian arias that show off the numerous facets of her voice to splendid advantage. Otherwise, you'll just have to wait until she ''catches on'' with opera managements around the country - including the Met, which by rights should have brought her here first.

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