Conductors' operas: Met offers two classics

The last two operas to enter the Metropolitan Opera's 1981-82 repertoire are two pinnacles of the art form - Beethoven's ''Fidelio'' and Wagner's ''Parsifal.''

Both are quintessentially conductors' operas, and the Met has not stinted in either work: Bernard Haitink is making his Met debut conducting ''Fidelio'' and music director James Levine once again tackles ''Parsifal.''

''Parsifal'' closes the broadcast season on April 17 (starting one hour earlier than usual--check local radio listings). And visitors to New York can actually hear both works in one day, Saturday, April 17, which is the last day of the season.

Mr. Haitink led an inspired reading of Beethoven's richly human score. His decidedly symphonic approach never shirked the theatrical side of the music. The Met orchestra played handsomely, with lean but pliant tone in the strings and winds, and firm playing in the brass. Thus, Haitink could luxuriate in the score , unfolding the music with warmth, compassion, and urgency.

Unfortunately, the cast assembled did the house little credit in this production, depriving Mr. Haitink of creating a truly memorable whole. For a ''Fidelio'' without strong principals is hardly ''Fidelio,'' no matter how splendid the conducting. Shirley Verrett was assaying the title role for the first time in her career, and it was rough going from beginning to end. The role does not suit her voice, and she happened to be out of voice opening night. At no point could one glean more than a very general characterization.

Her Florestan was Edward Sooter, a burly man with an equally burly though tight voice, and he did not show much histrionic savoir-faire. Nor did his neatly trimmed beard, neat clothes, and healthy stage deportment speak of a man held in a foul dungeon for three years. Newcomer Leif Roar offered adequate presence and an uneven baritone as the villainous Don Pizzarro.

John Macurdy was the warm Rocco, with Judith Blegen a surprisingly matronly Marzelline, James Atherton the effective Jacquino, and James Morris the solid Don Fernando. As to the production, it is dimly lit, and little remains of the original Otto Schenk direction.


''Parsifal'' fared somewhat better. Mr. Levine is making his Bayreuth debut with this opera this summer. When he first tried it at the Met some three seasons back, it was at best a disappointing reading, lacking in insight, in orchestral richness, and a clear sense of direction. Happily, he has grown immeasurably in the work (as is so often the case with him), and now what he offers is magical, insightful, and gloriously orchestral. It still lacks a bit of spiritual insight, but that should come with time and further performances.

In Peter Hofmann, Levine's Parsifal this summer, we have the ideal presence for the role of the ''pure fool''--trim, athletic, youthful, golden-haired. The role has moments that tax his lyric tenor to the limit of his resources, but his acting is excellent and he makes a substantial hero in this dry spell of true Wagner heldentenors. Jerome Hines, now in his 37th season, offered a Gurnemanz of authority and presence until he tired in the third act.

Thomas Stewart had some problems singing Amfortas, but his acting and his stylish delivery compensated for those vocal troubles. Mignon Dunn made far less of Kundry than she should have. She had trouble with most of the high notes she tried to sing (as opposed to those she merely omitted). Otherwise, the music does not sit comfortably in the voice, and she scored her best dramatic effects in the third act, in which Kundry has little to sing but much to portray. Most of the secondary casting proved little more than competent.

The Robert O'Hearn sets are in the style now dubbed neo-Bayreuth--symbolic, suggestive, dark, stark. Wherever one wants light and color, one gets mists and shadows. Nathaniel Merrill's direction is static and rather listless.

Since the Met now fully intends to make ''Pasifal'' an annual event, it would be lovely indeed to have it in a production that matches the Otto Schenk-Gunther Schneider-Siemssen ''Tannhauser'' for beauty, simplicity, and effectiveness.

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