Met at its best in a new staging of 'Tales of Hoffmann'

When the Metropolitan Opera actually lives up to its reputation, it is cause for celebration.

The company now has a production of Jacques Offenbach's ''Les Contes d'Hoffmann'' (''Tales of Hoffman'') that it can be proud of for years to come. It will be one of two new productions touring this spring (the other is ''The Barber of Seville'' discussed further down). It can also be heard on the radio broadcast of March 27 (check local listings).

The evening effortlessly captures the wit, passion, and eerie fantasy that is at the core of the opera. A sparkling cast, a remarkable conductor in his New York and Met debut, and a proven designer-director ''team'' -- i.e. all the common-sense choices opera houses seem to ignore so conspicuously these days -- work together to make a popular opera something magical, grandly Metropolitan in sweep, and a model for all ''Hoffmanns'' to come.

There is no finer Hoffmann today than Placido Domingo, and few in the past could equal the blend of voice, presence, acting, and musicianship he brings to this quintessential Domingo role. He is, at every moment, a committed, elegant singer, a subtle actor, and in fact, a marvelous inter-actor with his colleagues. And rather than just let Domingo try to carry this show, he has been given a mostly marvelous cast to set him off like an imposing diamond in a rich platinum-and-gold setting.

One could easily lament that the Met chose not to be adventuresome by presenting the version Offenbach envisioned -- and wrote down in piano-vocal form. Rather, the house fell back on the tried and not-so-true Choudens version, complete with interpolations not dreamed of by the composer, yet familiar and engaging on its own terms.

Otto Schenk trusts the music and the plot enough to let it unfold as written. Within that trust, he has illuminated the details of motivation and characterization to make it all more vivid. Thus, in Spalanzani's workshop - designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's marvel of whirring, spinning, grating creations - Olympia gradually becomes a doll with a will of her own. The courtesan Giulietta is imperiously amoral. Antonia lives in a dreamworld that becomes a self-destructive nightmare. Throughout, evil is adamantly at work in the guise of the four villains, foiling Hoffmann's romantic pursuits with manic humor (Coppelius), suave slyness (Dappertutto), and supernatural power (Dr. Miracle).

Mr. Schneider-Siemssen's set for that workshop is a masterpiece. His Venice scene puts the viewer in a magnificent square of that city. Antonia's anteroom becomes a chamber of horrors when Miracle walks through walls, pops up and out from unexpected places, to haunt and taunt her to death. It is an ideal partnership, where the set designer (along with costume designer Gaby Frey and lighting designer Gil Wechsler) abets director. This was the case in the same team's ''Tannhauser'' -- rightfully acclaimed as one of the Met's finest achievements, and one of the great productions of an opera in the world today. The same can be said of this ''Hoffmann.''

Of the other singers, Ruth Welting, as the doll Olympia, proves the ideal executor of Schenk's intentions. She begins with vacuous smiles and twitters, and gradually becomes an adamant automaton who won't be ignored. All the while she trills and sings cascades of showering coloratura with faultless precision -- a triumphant display of talent and expertise.

The Giulietta, Tatiana Troyanos, emerges in a fabulous gown, looking imposingly statuesque. Ultimately though, she never quite captures the odd blend of voluptuary and impetuous harpy that animates this curious courtesan. Christiane Eda-Pierre, though unflatteringly wigged and costumed, presents Antonia's wistful beginnings commendably, and tries to gradually lead her character into the depths of nightmare. However, her demure security does not communicate the requisite sense of hothouse fragility erupting into self-destructiveness.

Michael Devlin embodies the four villanous foils to Hoffmann's romantic endeavors. He moves particularly well and has a clear grasp of his various characters, be it the cruel, patrician Lindorf, the dervish-like Coppelius, the suave Dappertutto, or the demonic Dr. Miracle. Vocally, he seemed labored on opening night and was particularly at odds with the suave elegance of Dappertutto. Importing tenor Michel Senechal from Paris for his Met debut as the four servants may seem oddly extravagant, yet his special brand of mastery deserves to be experienced on every major operatic stage. He makes each character a cameo of remarkable precision and comic wit. Just to see Monsieur Senechal carry on subtly, slyly, with a recalcitrant Olympia is to know one is in the presence of a master performer.

Last, but hardly least, Riccardo Chailly revealed himself a master of detail, of ensemble, and of the grand sweep of operatic excitement. His blazing account revealed the passions and grace of Offenbach's score, rather than his own manipulative views of that score. In this day of arbitrary and self-serving young conductor talents, Chailly is a gifted breath of fresh air. 'The Barber of Seville'

Unfortunately, the new production of Rossini's ''Barber of Seville'' offers little more than a handsome set and the sumptuous voice of Marilyn Horne as Rosina.

Robin Wagner's turntable-set looks more suitable to a production of Mozart's Turkish-set ''Abduction From the Seraglio'' than Rossini's Sevillian comedy. But it offers handsome rooms for the performers (even showing us Figaro's shop as it turns) and a constantly beguiling frame for the action.

Unfortunately, Patricia Zipprodt's costumes are ungainly and the action is nil. British director John Cox seems to feel that being static is funny, so he lets the singers stand in place at the front of the stage, and flap an arm or lift an elbow. This has more to do with oratorio than with Rossini.

Tenor Rockwell Blacke is an engaging Almaviva, if vocally pinched and a bit inelegant of phrasing. As Figaro, baritone Pablo Elvira shone in his big aria, without revealing overwhelming reserves of charm elsewhere. (He has now been replaced by William Workman.) Ara Berberian sang a gruff, crude Basilio, a role usually the reserve of a house's finest bass, not a character singer. New to the Met was Enzo Dara, the Bartolo, who revealed none of the comic gifts for which he is justly famous.

In the pit, Andrew Davis led a dull, plodding account of this joyous score. To offer Rossini without sparkle or wit is to offer nothing at all.

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