Bringing star power back to the Met

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DECEMBER is the month the Metropolitan Opera becomes a truly national institution for 20 weeks by means of the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera Radio network -- live Met opera every Saturday afternoon through April 19, as has been the case for over 45 years. What with the broadcast season in full swing, with the TV-radio simulcast season about to begin (PBS, Jan. 11, with Rossini's ``L'Italiana in Algeri,'' starring Marilyn Horne), and with the new general manager, Bruce Crawford, about to take charge officially next month, this seems a good time to reflect on the state of the Met these days.

Things have not been going well for this house for several seasons now. On the one hand there has been the constant improvement made by the Met orchestra under its music director, James Levine. On the other hand there has been the serious erosion in casting standards. Too often the now-retired casting director, with the sanction of the now-retired general manager, tended to stint with big names. A small group of favored singers got plums, even when they were obviously being miscast. In the case of opera s known to sell, like ``La Boh`eme,'' house singers tended to do the job. Important new voices were regularly ignored, and established favorites too often overlooked. Finally, these policies began to show at the box office. The New York Times reported this fall that last season the box office had fallen off to 85 percent overall. If once a falloff from 96 percent to 94 percent caused internal panic, imagine what 85 percent must have done!

Two occurrences this season have led me to believe that Mr. Crawford is already making a difference, that he really will turn the house around. The first was on the night soprano Evelyn Lear unexpectedly chose to bid farewell to the company as the Marschallin in Strauss's ``Der Rosenkavalier.'' She delivered a touching performance that, in her usual remarkable way, let the audience sense the heroine's every shift of mood and emotional direction. Then, at the final curtain after the bows (without Miss Lear), Mr. Crawford stepped before the audience to announce the farewell and pay the singer a warm tribute. He then brought out Miss Lear, who bade her own tearful goodbye to her Met public. It was the sort of gesture former general manager Sir Rudolf Bing used to make for honored artists, but had been done only under duress in recent seasons.

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The second occurrence was the announcement, just after Pl'acido Domingo pulled out of his Met obligations this fall to make a movie, that Jon Vickers, now an operatic legend, would replace Domingo as Canio in Leoncavallo's ``I Pagliacci.'' Had this been last season, the Met would have let the unknown Ernesto Veronelli, the first-cast Canio, continue in the run, even though his debut was disastrous.

Sadly, the evening devoted to Mascagni's ``Cavalleria Rusticana'' and ``Pagliacci'' (two operas about jealousy and revenge, lovingly known as ``Cav/Pag'') was one of the worst spent at the house in recent memory. The ``Cav'' may have boasted German soprano Hildegard Behrens as Santuzza, but it proved to be a role that showed her off to serious disadvantage vocally and temperamentally. And the supporting cast was just not up to Met standard.

The ``Pag'' suffered similar problems. The unfortunate Mr. Veronelli was unable to generate a free-ringing tone or even a hint of Canio's character in this most volatile of tenor roles. And though Sherrill Milnes was on hand to liven up the proceedings, he faced a dramatic vacuum that also included the matronly Nedda of Jeannette Pilou and was not at his most inspired. Milnes perked up with Mr. Vickers, who, despite a too cerebral approach to this volcanic role, managed to be a presence to reckon with. Garcia Navarro, the debuting conductor, could keep neither the orchestra nor the singers together for any great stretch of time and had, at best, only a rudimentary grasp of the dramatic essence of either score.

Happily, two other revivals found the Met in highly honorable form: ``Parade,'' the David Hockney-designed French triple bill, looked as lovely as ever; ``La Traviata'' offered a consistently honorable evening of Verdi. ``Parade'' (broadcast Dec. 21) incorporated the Erik Satie ballet of the same title, Francis Poulenc's ``Les Mamelles de Tir'esias,'' and Ravel's ``L'Enfant et les sortil`eges.'' As in the past, the sets and Manuel Rosenthal's evocative, richly hued conducting were the stars of the shows . In the Ravel, Hilda Harris continued to be an affecting Child, while, in a large supporting cast, Marvis Martin's meltingly sung Princess was a standout. ``Mamelles'' had slipped a bit (the French diction was worse than ever). However, the gifted soprano Barbara Daniels, new to the cast, filled the theater with personality and often sumptuous singing -- particularly as the Fortuneteller.

Miss Daniels was also heard in the ``Traviata.'' Ideally her Violetta is not meant for so large a theater. Nevertheless, she managed most of the demanding role with poise, and some moments flashed out with thrilling singing and great temperament. Tenor Luis Lima gave a stirring performance as Alfredo, and Leo Nucci, though miscast as Germont, nevertheless sang the big aria with vigor and conviction. In the pit, Thomas Fulton kept things moving rather too insistently and unrelentingly.

Mr. Crawford has been outspoken in his desire to bring glamour and star power back to the theater. Also, he's proving to be an active and public general manager: He regularly attends Met performances and has even been observed at the City Opera. He cannot change much about this season, but there is every hope that in future seasons Met patrons will see improvements in so many aspects of the company, and a serious attempt to make the Met No. 1 in the opera world once again.

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