Old Faithfuls at the Met

The John Dexter production of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" is one the Metropolitan Opera Company believes in fervently and brings back with regularity.

Despite some notable faults, it has a seamless flow, is generally faithful to the spirit of the work about the martyrdom of some Carmelites in revolutionary France, and is very high on visual impact. It may not be Dexter's finest -- "Billy Budd" and arguably "Lulu" take that honor -- but it remains very good.

Ironically, the work did not grab the audience this time around as it had on any of my past encounters with it both in the house or on tour. This revival was sung in French, and most in the audiences simply had no idea what all that seemingly endless dialogue was all about. In English, even if enunciation was not 100 percent or even 50 percent intelligible (as it too often was not), to have caught the occasional English word now and then allowed an idea of what was going on. In French, all was lost (just as all was lost with "Lulu" in German).

There should be a policy about such works new to this opera house and this city: that they be done in English for manym seasons not just a few. There should also be a place in this large city where opera can be heard in English on a regular basis, but it is not yet determined whether or not Beverly Sills will want that rol fulfilled at the City Opera.

In any event, the French in "Dialogues" was generally deplorable -- syllabic gibberish -- and many giant steps back from the high standards the house was setting a few seasons ago. The only one to make a complete performance of a role was, not surprisingly, Regine Crespin. As the old Prioress, she turned her two scenes into riveting, powerful things -- a performance of histrionic power.

The cast was, for the most part, familiar and predictable, except that suddenly Maria Ewing has become something close to Blanche de la Force, where, until this season, she was simply impassive. This visible progress in coming toterms with a role not ideally suited to her voice or temperament was commendable. On the other hand, Leona Mitchell has become even less committed and interesting as the young prioress, Mme. Ldoine. Even vocally, she had troubles with a role written for a larger voice and temperament. Large temperament has always been just about all Mignon Dunn offers as Mother Marie (though vocally she was off form and was replaced after the intermission by the vivid if eccentric Gwynn Cornell).

TEmperament is what Betsy Norden conspicuously lacks in this case, and after a while her sunny smiles and thin top tones take a toll in a roll that must keep sympathy alive if Constance is to be more than a flibbertigibbet. The others in the cast, new and old, were at best solid and in a few instances startingly off the mark. One change emphatically for the better was Julius Rudel in the pit, who brought the biting incisive edge and the riot of colors this score has lacked at the Met in its previous encounters. Finally, the breadth and variety of Poulenc's orchestral skill was heard, thanks to Mr. Rudel's committed work.

Even in this thrown-together, picking- up-the-pieces time at the Met, one wonders why a "Cav/Pag" (as the popular double- bill of Cavalleria Rusticana" and "I Pagliacci" is affectionately known) need limp along in quite so stolidly routine a fashion? Not that the evening was devoid of moments -- Grace Bumbry's inconsistent but often electric Santuzza, Geraldine Decker's compelling Mama Lucia, Richard Cassilly's increasingly tempestuous and forceful Canio, and Patricia Craig's commendably vulnerable Nedda.

But one wonders about Carlo Bini's raucous, unshaped Turridu, Cornell MacNeil's painfully sung Alfio (making less amends -- in the next opera -- as Tonio than in seasons past), and other supporting roles less than adequately taken in most cases. But it was more than that. The chorus in "Cav" seemed to have wandered in from some dreary oratorio, in "Pag" it spent as much time bounding around onstage as it did chatting (all-too-audibly) backstage. And in the pit, David Stivender proved, at very best, routine in operas that cannot survive such indifference. Regine Crespin

Indifference could never be attributed to anything Regine Crespin does, but some foul-up in planning seems to have been at work on the program she offered her Carnegie Hall audience recently. The evening offered the scantest hour of singing plus two encores dragged out after considerable coaxing.

An entire half of Schumann may be bliss for some, but not for this writer. "Frauenliebe und Leben" is not the composer's most compelling cycle -- seven songs about delirious happiness, and the eighth about the cruelty of separation by death. Even with one so skilled, magical, and full of nuance in the German language as Miss Crespin, the cycle is quite Johnny- one-note.

After intermission, she offered three songs each by Debussy, Satie, and three English folk songs. The Debussy proved delectable, the Satie of "La Diva de l'Empire" delicious, Frank Bridge's "Love Went a Riding," sumptuous. A Satie song that was over before it began, and the "Habanera" were the encores, then Miss Crespin closed the lid, walked off with accompanist John Wustman, and the evening was over -- not a memorable event, yet not without its special charms as only Miss Crespin can offer.

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