The Met: back in spectacular form

The most elusive part of many an opera house's schedule these days is putting singers in suitable roles. This past holiday season found the Metropolitan Opera in a form far truer to its reputation as a front-rank opera house than at any time yet this season.

Under its belt: the spectacular revival of "Rosenkavalier," which saw an important change in cast during the period in question; a close-to-ideal cast for Humperdinck's delectable opera "Hansel and Gretel"; and two looks at Ponchielli's grand spectacle "La Gioconda" that had glimmers of impressiveness.

Probably the nadir of the Met's current casting problems was reached, in "Aida," which the house is now retiring for at least four seasons. I attended a Saturday matinee broadcast only to find the scheduled Aida indisposed. Galina Savova was covering another role altogether. In her sudden debut, she was strongly audible at all times, not without some tonal allure now and then, but not capable of the sort of musical pointing or tapering of phrase the role requires. At least her acting was animated and wonderfully old-fashioned.

Around her was a cast almost completely at odds with its respective roles. Binaca Berini's impassive Amneris was also lacking in all the lower notes. Nor was Giorgio Lamberti's peculiarly dry, throaty vocal production suited for Radames. Luigi Roni's lethergic Ramfis was rough vocally. Ingvar Wixell was in uneven form as Amonasro. And in the pit, James Conlon was neither too supportive of his singers nor particularly in tune with the breadth, sweep, and surpassing beauty of this score.

No wonder the "Hansel" was cause for such celebration. For it truly was the Met as it always should be, giving this remarkably beautiful work its full due. Could there be a soprano today more suited to Gretel in a big house than Catherine Malfitano? She looks uncloyingly girlish. The role lies handsomely in the attractive lyric soprano voice -- which is large, clear, and true from top to bottom. After hearing her fight "La Traviata" on two dispiriting occasions, it is good to note she was ideally cast for her Met debut role.

Hansel was the imposing Tatiano Troyanos -- superbly sung, and vividly acted. Jean Kraft's Mother was the best thing I have seen her do at the house; Allan Monk's Father was a gorgeous outpouring of golden tones. Paul Franke made a good case for the Witch sung by a man -- just the right comic edge, superbly enunciated, securely sung. Conductor Calvin Simmons stressd expansive lyricism -- at its best, hauntingly beautiful, the splendid aural match for a production that is a marvel of inventiveness and is utterly magical from beginning to end.

The first cast of "Rosenkavalier" was memorable. Yet when Johanna Meier took over the Marschallin for one performance, the Met presented another remarkable interpreter of that difficult and tricky role. The Marschallin needs that inner radiance that pervaded Miss Meier's performance. She brought all the majesty of bearing this Princess must have, as well as the tenderness, femininity, and poignancy without sentimentality. She easily filled the house histrionically and vocally with a very special performance of unerring rightness, of superb sesitivity and subtlety, and of superior vocal substance.

The debuting Sophie was Gianna Rolandi from the New York City Opera, who in this case proved wanting in the fundamental ingredients for the role -- grace, innocence, and an ability to spin out long tapered phrases suffused with warmth and meaning. Also new was Elizabeth Volkman's strongly sung, delightfully acted Marianne. Agnes Baltsa remains the finest Octavain the Met has had in quite some time.

Erich Leinsdorf was again the marvelous maestro, giving an account expertly balanced, richly detailed, marvelously well paced.

"La Gioconda" has dogged the Met at both casts. First time around there was the indefatigable veteran Carlo Bergonzi giving a master's demonstration of the art of Italian opera singing.

Grace Melzia Bumbry has the role well in the voice, a few holes aside, but there was not much conviction in her projection or her acting. Bruna Baglioni's Laura was too contained and too conservatively conceived for so large a house as the Met. Frederick Radovan was not up to the demands of Barnaba. Nor was Paul Plishka in especially good form as Alvise.

The second cast found newcomer Jocelyne Taillon the only carry-over in principal casting. Her Cieca had all the notes, and she was gaining in confidence and vocal focus by this time. Renata Scotto is not an ideal Gioconda. Those numerous stretches of dramatic outpourings need a larger more opulent voice than she possesses. But so many of the intimate moments flashed out with that typical Scotto magic that always make her performances interesting.

Ermanno Mauro's Enzo was well- intentioned musically, but vocally he was wildly inconsistent in his approach to the top of the voice -- alarming for a singer with such a downright beautiful instrument. Louis Quilico sang Barnaba securely, even richly, without projecting much menace.

Bonaldo Giaiotti was an ideal Alvise -- the sort of major voice all six leads of this opera needs. Maria Luise Nave's strident voice and rudimentary abilities as an actress had her fighting the role of Laura from beginning to end.

In the pit Giuseppe Patane had led a subdued performance with the Bumbry- Bergonzi cast. The Scotto evening found Eugene Kohn debuting for the indisposed Patane. Complete with boisterous cheering section that greeted his first bow (and every one thereafter), Kohn landed in no dire straits. But the former accompanist-turned-assistant-conductor was more animated than he was attentive to his singers.

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