Metropolitan's Five-Premi`ere Season Gets Off to a Promising Start

THE Metropolitan's new production of Verdi's ``Un Ballo in Maschera,'' unveiled last month, is the first of five premi`eres this season. Director Piero Faggioni, remembered for his superb staging of Zandonai's ``Francesca da Rimini,'' is also credited with the set, costume, and lighting designs for ``Ballo.'' Clearly he was overstretched. Preparing the work for its premi`ere in 1859, Verdi was forced to change the action from Stockholm to Boston when Neapolitan censors balked at portraying a royal assassination. Mr. Faggioni has moved the action back to Sweden, but to minimal effect.

Only the final scene, a huge masked ball in the lobby of the Royal Opera house in Stockholm, sparks the imagination. The bustling activity takes place against icy-blue lighting, and the way the news of the King's fatal wound is conveyed to an astonished court is dramatically effective and deeply moving. Otherwise, the sets are distractingly large, oddly conceived, and anti-dramatic.

Vocally, the performance I heard was distinguished. Luciano Pavarotti, as the ill-fated Gustav, was in magnificent voice, pouring out richly hued tones full of fervor and meaning.

Aprile Millo sailed through Amelia's grueling hurdles with vocal poise and lustrous tone. Her acting was refreshing simple. Harolyn Blackwell made the page-boy Oscar a stage-filling, show-stopping audience favorite.

Elena Obraztsova was at home singing Ulrica's cavernous low notes resoundingly but was less comfortable in the upper reaches. Juan Pons's Renato made little impression in these surroundings. James Levine, in his first brush with this opera, never stinted on the grandeur yet managed to demonstrate what beautiful music this really is.

The Met season opened with Mirella Freni and Pl'acido Domingo in Puccini's ``La Boh`eme,'' with Christian Badea conducting.

Seldom has Miss Freni been so profoundly poetic, so desperately moving, so utterly involved with every nuance of the role of Mimi. Hers was unquestionably a legendary performance. Domingo was the ardent, passionate Rodolfo, and his histrionic responses to Freni made for something altogether special.

Barbara Daniels shone for her house-filling performance of Musetta, and Julien Robbins gave a particularly touching account of Colline's last-act aria. In the pit, Mr. Badea was the ever the watchful accompanying partner.

Carlos Kleiber made a welcome return to the Met to conduct an historic account of Strauss's ``Der Rosenkavalier.'' Kleiber conjures magical sounds and textures from the Met orchestra yet never buries his singers. His grasp of this score is unique, and his interpretation unfolds with all the wit, sarcasm, and pathos Strauss wrote into the music.

Anne Sophie von Otter, in her debut performances, managed all aspects of the title role commendably, particularly the acting. Barbara Bonney presented a deliciously peppery Sophie. Unfortunately, Felicity Lott's Marschallin lacked the magnetism and layers of hidden meaning crucial to the role.

Sarah Walker and Anthony Laciura made a particularly riotous pairing for Annina and Valzacchi. Aage Haugland was the familiar Ochs.

An entirely new cast was seen in Mozart's ``Don Giovanni,'' in the attractive Franco Zeffirelli setting unveiled last season. Levine was conducting again. His reading has grown in depth and drama since last season, and the orchestra played especially well.

On stage, Cheryl Studer was most impressive for her blazing Donna Anna. She was closely followed by Marie McLaughlin for her multifaceted Zerlina, and Paul Plishka for his satisfying and vocally imposing Leporello.

Natale De Carolis made Masetto a menacing rival in a characterization that was a refreshing change from the country dolt usually presented.

Sergei Koptchak offered the loudest and most terrifying Commendatore I have ever heard in a theater.

Patricia Schuman brought tremendous dignity and vulnerability to her debut in the role of Donna Elvira, but she was not at ease vocally. Hans Peter Blochwitz, another debuting artist, seemed uncomfortable with the role of Don Ottavio.

In the title role, Thomas Hampson lacked the Don's requisite tonal allure and Latin braggadocio. Yet he handled the recitatives with panache, and he always let the audience know what the character was thinking as he sang.

The remaining new productions this season include Rossini's ``Semiramide'' with Marilyn Horne (just now on the boards); Mozart's ``Die Zauberfl"ote'' with Kathleen Battle, Francisco Araiza, and Levine in the pit (Jan. 10); Janacek's ``Kat'a Kabanova,'' with Gabriela Benackova and Leonie Rysanek (Feb. 25); and Wagner's ``Parsifal,'' with Domingo, Jessye Norman, and Levine conducting (March 14).

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