NEW YORK — THERE are many reasons why an opera company mounts new productions, but a good rule of thumb is that the new staging should always be at least as good as the one it is replacing. The Metropolitan Opera has offered fresh views of both Wagner's ``Der Fliegende Holl"ander'' (``The Flying Dutchman)'' and Gounod's ``Faust'' as the third and four new productions of the current season. Both shows replaced versions the company had deemed inadequate: In the case of ``Holl"ander,'' the last production had trivialized the work; the ``Faust'' had been a fine production which was not maintained with affection.
Both new stagings featured singers that are highly prominent on the Met's roster - bass James Morris, soprano Carol Vaness, and tenor Neil Shicoff.
Curiously enough, the productions dramatize how crucial it is for a director really to understand the operatic idiom, and to have a sure idea of how he wants the production to look so that he is not saddled with an unattractive design.
``Holl"ander'' was clearly the work of a director steeped in opera, one who had strong views about the opera and demanded sets that would enhance these views.
``Faust,'' however, suffered from so tenuous a directorial viewpoint that the designer was allowed to turn in an unusually ugly set that was also unwieldy for the performers.
For regular operagoers, it will be no surprise that the ``Holl"ander'' staging was the work of seasoned German director August Everding. He has been responsible for several of the Met's outstanding stagings, including those of Wagner's ``Tristan und Isolde'' and Mussorgsky's ``Boris Godunov.''
Theatergoers will doubtless be amazed to learn that the ``Faust'' was ``signed'' by Harold Prince, whose most recent Broadway triumph is ``The Phantom of the Opera.'' He is making his Met debut and is still relatively new to opera.
Opera with a highly visual style
In ``Holl"ander,'' which has concluded its run for this season, Mr. Everding and designer Hans Schavernoch strove for a highly visual style that sometimes confounded common sense, yet at all times proved engrossing, even illuminating. The time has been moved ahead to the era of electric lights, sewing machines, and transatlantic steamships.
The first of the three claustrophobic, icy scenes finds Daland's ice-shrouded ship nestled next to an iceberg; the second is set in a large sail shop; the finale unfolds on and next to a debris-littered sea-side pier.
Some special effects are spectacular: The sequence with the ghostly crew is truly frightening, and the blizzard that masks the sinking of the phantom ship is grandly theatrical.
Musically, top honors were divided between conductor James Levine and Mr. Morris as the ghostly skipper. It is no secret that the Met orchestra is one of the best opera orchestras in the world, so this ``Dutchman'' was at all times remarkably well played. In scenes like the vision of the Dutchman's ghastly crew, orchestra, conductor, and sets fused into indelibly powerful totalities. As the Dutchman, Morris dominated the two performances I saw with splendid singing and an imposing presence.
Of the two Sentas, Janis Martin was clearly the more effective and quite committed histrionically; Mechthild Gessendorf's soprano cut through the orchestra, but she offered no characterization and an awkward stage presence. At the later performance, Thomas Booth offered a poised, vocally impressive Steersman, and Matti Salminen's Daland was simply extraordinary.
`Faust' beset by visual problems
As for the ``Faust,'' it would be easy enough to dwell on all the obviously negative aspects - aspects all the more lamentable because Gounod's expertly crafted work has fallen into musical disfavor. Suffice it to say that Mr. Prince was clearly cowed by an opera bursting with theatrical possibilities.
A few ideas were effective, such as the Church Scene, in which Marguerite is haunted by M'ephistoph'el`es in the form of a gargoyle. Others proved at best naive, at worst embarrassing. Granted, no director could have overcome Rolf Langenfass's unrelievedly unattractive set, which owes its inspiration to a nightmarish version of Tolkien's ``The Hobbit'' rather than 16th-century Germany.
The problems with the evening were not exclusively visual. Charles Dutoit, the noted symphonic maestro, proved so ill-attuned to the needs of singers or even to the basic dramatic and orchestrational needs of Gounod's score as to make one question his basic affinity for the medium.
Three of the singers - Carol Vaness (Marguerite), Neil Shicoff (Faust), and Brian Schexnayder (Valentin) - deferred too often to Mr. Dutoit, to their collective detriment. Mr. Schexnayder, in poor voice, was eventually announced as singing over an indisposition. At least Mr. Shicoff has proved himself a superior Faust in other cities.
Miss Vaness seemed tenuous in a role new to her repertoire. Both would have benefited from following James Morris's lead in effectively ignoring the conductor. By refusing to yield to Dutoit's consistently inanimate tempos, the bass was able to dominate every scene as M'ephistoph'el`es.
For the record, Dolores Ziegler made her debut as a sweet, small-scaled Siebel.
The final performance of the production this season will be on March 24.