Stars before their time: the hasty course of American singing today

With the forthcoming ''Live From Lincoln Center'' simulcast of the New York City Opera production of Donizetti's ''Lucia di Lammermoor,'' opera lovers nationwide will get a representative look at the state of American singing today , though not really the City Opera at its very best.

For the best of City Opera was to be heard in its revival of Carlisle Floyd's ''Susannah'' (see these pages in the April 6 issue) - a superior ensemble effort wherein even the least effective performances did not detract from the overall favorable, exciting whole.

Another best - a real gem, in fact - is the revival of Bizet's ''Les Pecheurs de Perles'' (''The Pearl Fishers''). I recall not being enamored of the production here when it was new, but seeing it again, I feel it is a simple but effective attempt at creating a mood on a budget, effectively designed by Robert O'Heare. Director Cynthia Auerbach has removed a good deal of the kitsch and let a lot more of the sweet and naive Bizet through.

While no neglected masterpiece, ''Pearl Fishers'' has more than its share of lovely arias, duets, and scenes: No one goes away feeling stinted in the tunes department. Soprano Carol Vaness has yet to find a more compatible a role with this company. She looked lovely and exotic, and sounded radiant - using all the dynamics, coloration, and imagination one expects from a singer in full control of her instrument (which so few of today's featured young American singers really are).

Jerry Hadley sang the role of Nadir with tremendous elan and ease, even in the treacherous upper reaches. Their voices blended well together in their duets and they both acted with fervor. Though William Stone has plenty of presence, his somewhat muffled baritone tended to undercut his effectiveness as Zurga.

In the pit, Scott Bergeson conducted with finesse, a real sense of the value of the music, and good attention to his singers.

The ''Lucia'' chugs along on a considerably less commendable scale, as seen at the performance before the telecast. The production is handsome to look at, a bit silly, and quite obvious: Tito Capobianco insists on spelling out every last detail with heavy accents and a good deal of extraneous action.

Gianna Rolandi in many ways epitomizes the problems with the current crop of young American singers. No matter what the role, her general presence tends more toward wholesome American rather than the heroine in question. Her Italian is adequate. She has a secure vocal technique, she can climb the stratosphere securely, and she plows through the thickets of trills and roulades with efficiency.

But the essense of bel canto - beautiful singing - has yet to be heard from Miss Rolandi or so many others of today's artists being made stars before their times. Getting the notes out seems to be the goal of so many today, rather than showing one's ability to shade, to color, to phrase imaginatively, to make those notes mean something dramatically. Perhaps she or her advisers feel this is enough, and acclaim at Glyndebourne and other foreign locales only proves that point. But in an age less oriented to instant success, a singer would have become a complete master before trying these supreme roles in the big musical centers.

Barry McCauley was her Edgardo. He has occasional problems in husbanding his resources through an entire performance, and the top register tends to dry out a good deal, but that said, he becomes a more interesting singer from season to season. Brent Ellis, the Enrico, is pushing his basically fine baritone way out of shape, and the trouble in the upper register and the gravelly hoarseness in the lower are alarming. Robert Hale was the vocally raw, though dramatically committed, Raimondo. In the pit, Judith Somogi kept things moving, occasionally suffusing the score with vigor and moments of life.

The ''Lucia'' may have been an ordinary affair, but the company's new production of Verdi's ''I Lombardi'' was the lowest point yet for the company. Mario Vanarelli's unit turntable set was a series of steps to nowhere. At each scene break, this wedding-cake affair would groan around, and around, and finally halt, looking curiously the way it did before all this effort. The audience began greeting each change with laughter, cheers, and finally jeers. To give a sense of locale to this round heap, a banner with a cave etched on it, or some arches, or whatever, would be lowered into place, and finally, after a long stretch of time, illuminated.

The opera is not one of Verdi's finest, in fact not as good as either ''Attila'' or ''Nabucco,'' which the City Opera has already offered as part of its ongoing Verdi cycle. It concerns the Crusades, specifically involving Arvino , his murderous brother Pagano, and his daughter Giselda. The plot is too complicated to summarize here. The opera offers lots of choruses, arias, scenes, and ensembles, only a few of which proclaim the subsequent greatness of this still young master of Italian opera.

Sad to say, the entire event reeked of budget, from the sets and costumes right down to the often tacky props. The singing was little better. Ashley Putnam should not be singing Verdi. In fact, on the basis of this and the ''Puritani'' earlier in the season, she should tax her voice less strenuously. There are cracks on quiet notes, shrillness up top, a breathy lower register, and a pronounced wobble. This should not be, and need not be, if only she would do something about it, and soon. Tenor Riccardo Calleo was the intermittently mellifluous Oronte, Garry Grice the uneven Arvino, Justino Diaz the evidently out-of-voice Pagano. Most of the supporting singers proved drab. Christopher Keene conducted with great velocity but little sense of the Verdian line or majesty.

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