His last appearance on a local stage was in 1961. This week the enormously versatile Yves Montand returned to New York for a brief but historic engagement. Montand's seven performances at the Metropolitan Opera House mark the first time in its 98-year existence that the Met has presented a popular artist.
It would be hard to imagine a more brilliantly executed breakthrough. Opening night was a triumph alike for Montand and the Met.
France's most eminent actor-singer performed a program of 28 songs with no breaks, save for a brief film sketch (written by Simone Signoret, the star's actress-wife). All but one of the numbers is sung in French, making the English translations accompanying the program essential for most spectators.
But one of the marvelous things about Montand's art is his employment of all the ways and means of actor-singer-dancer to communicate instantly the desired and appropriate mood. As his own lighting designer, Montand is constantly adding touches of magic to the performance itself. He is a master of the bold silhouette.
The material, which includes several settings for Jacques Prevert poems, ranges from anecdotes to sagas, from songs of passion to songs of social awareness. Doffing his black waistcoat and miming a boxer's actions, the husky but supple Montand tells the story of ''Battling Joe,'' a mining-town kid who fought his way to the top and suddenly lost everything. Bowler-hatted and wielding a furled umbrella, the singer becomes ''Sir Godfrey,'' a gangster masquerading as an upper-class British snob. In the nimble Montand's hands, the ''brolly'' becomes a billiard cue, a golf club, a sheathed rapier, and a nasty little rat-tat-tat firearm. Nor should one neglect to mention a very funny Gallic French-English accent.
There are the slow rhythm of the nostalgic ''Ellington, Nineteen Hundred Forty and One'' and the beguiling melody of ''Dance of the Roses'' (''Roses of Picardy''), which Montand embellishes with a slow fox trot. His high kicks match the ''hidele hidele hidele'' of ''Luna Park'' and his Chevalier-like growl adds to its zest. In ''The Neighbor's Queen Cat,'' he mocks the affectations of people so obsessed with their cats (''Vive le chat, vive le chat'') that they ignore the world and its problems. His resonant baritone is an instrument of bold colors and delicate subtleties.
A song once inspired by Syracuse in Sicily becomes, in English translation, a tribute to Durango, Calamity Jane, ''Bogey,'' and Cyd Charisse. In ''Conductor in Love,'' a baton-wielding Montand sings the love story of how a classical conductor won the heart of Eugenia, who preferred Strauss to Beethoven. For laughs, Montand can joke about his English, lightly caution his orchestra leader , or chase a pretty blonde across the huge Met stage. As an entertainer, he epitomizes the casual manner and light touch of the seasoned music-hall star.
''Old Time Song'' had the first-night audience joining in the rhythmic hand-clapping accompaniment - a tribute most opera stars have yet to enjoy. ''Autumn Leaves'' was one of several numbers greeted with applause as Montand's excellent on-stage combo played the introductory measures.
Other favorites of the evening were ''The Shoeshine Boys,'' with its double silhouette of Montand and drummer Andre Arpino, and the ebullient, fiercely intense ''In Paris,'' which brought the show to a stirring climax. The translation of the F. Lemarque lyric runs in part: ''Troubles are all over the world but in all the world/There's not often a Paris/That's the trouble. . . .''
The prelude to his present North American tour was Montand's triumphant return to music-hall performing and the Olympia Theater in Paris after a 13-year absence. The 12-week Olympia run was followed by a European tour and a return engagement at the Olympia.
After his seven New York performances, Montand will continue touring. He will visit Washington (the Kennedy Center Opera House), Sept. 14-15; Quebec, Sept. 17-20; Ottawa, Sept. 22-25; Sherbrooke, Quebec, Sept. 27-28; Montreal, Sept. 30-Oct. 8; San Francisco, Oct. 11-16; and Los Angeles, Oct. 17-19. After that Montand takes his chansons to Japan.