What makes an opera season work? Tricky blend of staples and novelty

The strength of any opera house's season is in the variety and quality of its repertoire. The tricky blend of staples that guarantee box office and the novelties that garner artistic honors is an ideal rarely achieved.

At the Met, the closing weeks were devoted to Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," and Verdi's "La Traviata." The Puccini and Verdi have been discussed already in these pages. The Weill need detain us only briefly. Last year's sell-out success lost its box office power this time around, and after the first night, lost its star, Teresa Stratas. Ariel Bybee took over.

The mezzo cut a handsome stage figure, but her singing lacked character and reliability of pitch. Too often she sang just the flat side of acceptability, even in the big melodies such as "Moon of Alabama." Richard Cassilly dominated the opera as he had last season, giving a mighty performance as Jimmy Mahoney. Most of the cast changes were not for the best, except in the case of Lilli Chookasian, who gave a wonderfully dour, acerbic account of the Widow Begbick.

In the pit, James Levine made as strong a case as anyone ever could for the merits of this Bertholt Brecht-Kurt Weill work. In fact, it was some of his best work at the house this season.

At the City Opera, the novelty item of the closing weeks was Janacek's "The Makropoulos Affair." Frank Corsaro's production, over a decade old, remains one of his most important multimedia events (along with "A Village Romeo and Juliet, " which deserves a revival). The opera casts a unique spell, from its discursive first act to cathartic close, as it tells the tale of 342-year-old Emilia Marty, who has returned to Prague to obtain the Makropoulos document that gives the formula for 300 years of life. By the end, she realizes that her kind of life -- in which she feels nothing, where good or evil have no meaning --and Emilia is no more.

Corsaro's use of film, projected on a spread of odd-shaped screens that look like so many shards of a broken mirror, is as telling and vital today as it must have been when new. The original Emilia Marty, Maralin Niska, still turns in a riveting, compelling performance. The production is clearly hers, and the role might have been custom-written for her temperament and voice. Niska's was a grand triumph, the sort of ovation for a tour de force performance that one hears all too infrequently in opera houses these days.

Niska's supporting cast was vocally uneven, but almost all abetted the central focus of Miss Niska's performance. Jaohn Mauceri did not, perhaps, bring the passion needed to his work as conductor, but the work unfolded tautly under his direction. It was the sort of integrated performance one expects from City Opera, where everyone made his or her mark, and the whole was more than the sum of its parts. 'Tosca'

The same could not be said for a "Tosca" put on the boards earlier in the season. Justino Diaz's Scarpia was the focal point of that show, singing better than he has in quite some time, with clear, rich tones top and bottom, while acting without the true pedigree of carriage crucial to any Baron Scarpia. Marilyn Zschau has all the elements for a grand Tosca, without the concentration or the consistency. Too often she lunged vocally, singing out of tune and careening erratically around the stage. She is too good a performer to allow this sort of thing to happen often.

The restaged Tito Capobianco production, now credited to Ronald Bentley, had some niggling flaws which could hardly have helped the singers much. Imre Pallo was the adept, imposing conductor. Again and again one is reminded just what a treasure he is for this house, which functions with a now-legendary minimum of rehearsal, though one would hardly ever know it in Pallo evenings. Birgit Nilsson

How sad to think that Birgit Nilsson is a novelty at the Met (concerts being her lot) though now it is official she will sing the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" next season.Her all-Wagner concert Sunday night (following an unexpected bonus matinee outing to replace one of the unexpectedly scrubbed "Fidelios") was not the event of last seasons's return concert, but it still had wonderful things to offer.

At her best, as in the finale of "Walkure," one knows that singing of this majesty, magnitude, and authority may not be heard for many a season to come. Even when off form, one can relish the sheer size of the sound and the intentions of the artist. Unfortunately, Simon Estes and Manfred Jung did not match her performance. Estes lacked the vocal weight and the basics of communication to make his mark for Wagner in so big and prestigious a house as the Met. Jung was rather nondescript, but the voice cut through the orchestra and he sang with some meaning of words. In Mr. Estes's performance, there is a danger that we have the beginning of the new era of Wagner singing -- underscaled and missing artistic impact.But because he is used at Bayreuth, he is considered automatically good for the Met. What a depressing contrast to the era, now ending, that Miss Nilsson so gloriously represented and represents. Though James Levine was mightily booed, it had to be for more than his boisterous conducting. 'La Clemenza di Tito'

One must take Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito" as a novelty these days. Opera series have so little dramatic relevance and can be so stilted dramatically. Yet at the City Opera, one had fine moments aplenty in its revival. Carol Vaness dominated the evening with a passionate, forceful Vitellia that only infrequently lapsed into tentativeness. Thomas Moser may not have the most attractive voice around, but he brought tremendous strength to his words and his characterization as the noble, conscience-ridden Titus. Janice Hall and Susan Marsee were always competent as Servilia and Sextus respectively, which alas, Ralph Bassett and Nadia Pelle were not in their assignments.

Mario Bernardi led the work with grace and passion. Lloyd Evans's sets and costumes worked well, but Frederik Mirdita's odd mix of f rieze poses and naturalism did not coalesce.

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