A Strong Season - On Stage and CD. METROPOLITAN OPERA

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THE Metropolitan Opera is consumed with its new production of Wagner's ``Der Ring des Nibelungen,'' which it will offer three times before the season closes May 6. But looking at the year overall, it has been a good one for the company and for artistic director James Levine, both in terms of the quality of new productions, of the excellence of the best of its evenings, and of what the ``Ring'' is doing to heighten the company's visibility in the recording and video fields. For, as I write, release is due of the second and third installments of Deutsche Grammophon studio recordings of the project, ``Das Rheingold'' and ``Siegfried.''

``Die Walk"ure'' was released a few months ago (DG, digital, 423 389-2, 4 CDs, 245 min.). The current run of the opera has been taped for telecast in June 1990, as part of a PBS presentation of the entire ``Ring'' over four consecutive nights. Later it will be released on DG LaserDiscs. And while DG is recording ``G"otterd"amerung'' this spring, it will also be putting to CD Jessye Norman's reading of Schoenberg's ``Erwartung,'' discussed in these pages in February and seen on PBS March 31. For all these projects, Mr. Levine is the conductor.

He even took over the run of Tchaikovsky's ``Eugene Onegin'' after Andrew Litton, who conducted only the debut performance, bowed out because of illness. Coincidentally, Levine's reading of the score has just been issued on compact disc, with the Dresden Staatskapelle (DG, digital, 423 959-2, 2-CD, 149 min.). The Tatiana both in performance and on the CD is Mirella Freni.

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Actually, at the first performance in the Met run of ``Eugene Onegin'' Miss Freni was indisposed, and the Russian soprano Makvala Kasrashvili offered her full-scaled Bolshoi Opera version of Tatiana, just as she had done so memorably 10 years ago. The voice may have lost some of its luster and steadiness, but the beauty of her demeanor and the subtlety of her interpretation remain models of the authentic Russian style.

Freni's approach is much more extrovert and deeply moving. Though the voice is not steady, there is much luster to the sound, and, as partnered by Levine both in the house and on records, the performance is memorable. On stage, against the poorly lit Rolf G'erard sets, the opera sounded better than it looked, except in the case of baritone Jorma Hynninen, who looked better than he sounded.

The recording is spectacular. I could have wished for the same theatrical warmth from the Dresden Staatskapelle that I heard from the Met Orchestra, but Levine's reading is at all times ideal. Freni makes a compelling heroine, if one can overlook the occasionally intrusive tremolo in the voice. Neil Shicoff is as superb a Lensky on CD as he was in the opera house this season. A richer, more ringing baritone than Thomas Allen's would have been appreciated in the title role, however, and I can't quite forget Nicolai Ghiaurov's haunting account of Gremin's aria of the Met run on opening night, particularly when compared with the fresher-voiced but interpretively empty Paate Burchuladze on the recording.

ON stage, Levine's ``Ring'' performances have been uneven. For instance, Levine's work in this season's ``Walk"ure,'' heard at the performance in which Johanna Meier sang Br"unnhilde, sounded remote and uninvolved. Miss Meier, however, gave us an unusually womanly and vulnerable account of Valkyrie. James Morris offered a vocally rich yet oddly underpowered Wotan, Jessye Norman an opulent yet histrionically mannered Sieglinde, Gary Lakes a doggedly stentorian but imperfectly vocalized Siegmund, and Matti Salminen a superbly sinister Hunding.

On CD, we have the same voices save Meier and Salminen. Miss Norman and Mr. Morris are superb. In the title role, Hildegard Behrens is at all times vocally underpowered, yet she offers dramatic persuasiveness. And Levine gives as magnificent and thrilling an account of the score as one is apt to hear from anyone conducting Wagner today. In fact, if the rest of his recorded ``Ring'' is as sweepingly grandiose and effective, that might be reason enough to buy the entire cycle.

Of course, no one expects every night of the Met's long season to be on the level of the ``Onegin'' or the best of the Wagner. And it must be said that the company's recent revival of John Dexter's impressive production of ``Billy Budd'' was notable more for James King's restrained Captain Vere than for Thomas Allen's bland Budd, Jan-Hendrik Rootering's formless Claggart, or Thomas Fulton's aimless, anti-dramatic reading of Britten's remarkable score.

But with the many highlights and the coming revival of Donizetti's ``L'Elisir d'Amore'' with Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle, it's clear this has been a better-than-usual year at the house. If future seasons offer as many satisfying evenings, then the slump that has affected the company in the past few seasons may be a thing of the past.

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