San Francisco's showcase for the opera singer's art

There was a time the Metropolitan Opera in New York could claim to be the finest opera company in the country. Nowadays, that honor has to be divided three ways: the Met, the Chicago Lyric, and the San Francisco Opera.

Opera houses in general have been ignoring our treasured stars, so it is nice to know they have a stage in San Francisco - where younger artists are appreciated as well. In fact, the ideal opera house has young and older performers on the same stage so a tradition can be passed on, with younger singers learning from established stars.

The San Francisco Opera chief, Terry McEwen, seems to understand how important this mix is, and how crucial that it all be done in productions of quality and beauty, rather than in eccentric ways that distort the essence of what the composer is seeking to project.

But this is Mr. McEwen's first season, and it has had the usual share of problems and cancellations. The opening night ''Ballo in Maschera,'' for instance (as heard on a delayed broadcast), with Luciano Pavarotti and Monsterrat Caballe, was less than glorious vocally.

Mr. McEwen has managed to gather more stars per production than American audiences have become accustomed to. Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne were reunited here for Bellini's ''Norma,'' and a production of Poulenc's ''Dialogues of the Carmelites'' boasted Leontyne Price, Regine Crespin, and Virginia Zeani. Miss Horne sang the title role in Rossini's ''La Cenerentola'' for the first time in something like 25 years.

I caught up with three productions during my recent visit here: Wagner's ''Lohengrin,'' Massenet's ''Cendrillon,'' and Tchaikovsky's ''Queen of Spades.'' All three evenings afforded something special in these operatically difficult days. Mr. McEwen clearly believes that an opera cannot rest on just one singer's shoulders, and that a great performance can only come from substantial casting in all the principal roles. 'Lohengrin'

This was nowhere more true than in the ''Lohengrin,'' for which Mr. McEwen had gathered a particularly strong cast. The greatest interest was sparked by Leonie Rysanek's graduation, after nearly 30 years, from the role of Elsa to the role of Ortrud. Once again, Miss Rysanek has made a role uniquely her own and set a new standard for others to aspire toward. She dominated the evening with her definitive characterization. She does not portray the character, she inhabits it.

This villainess is usually the province of mezzo-sopranos. Miss Rysanek consummately demonstrates that only a dramatic soprano can do full justice to the part. She transforms the woman into a multifaceted creature of fierce pride and bottomless ambition through dazzling histrionic powers, astounding vocal shadings and subtleties, and, when needed, seemingly endless reserves of burnished visceral power.

Peter Hoffmann brought matinee-idol good looks and a low-key but expressive character projection to his excellent performance in the title role. Pilar Lorengar's radiantly innocent Elsa was very lyric, but she seemed unusually animated opposite Miss Rysanek's volatile Ortrud. For Miss Lorengar, the second act confrontations represented a new dramatic and vocal high point. Hermann Becht's Telramund was impressively bold and gruff in a way we have not been accustomed to of late. David Ward seemed a rather listless King Heinrich. Thomas Woodman's handsome lyric baritone was heard to generally fine effect as the Herald.

In the pit, Heinrich Hollreiser led a solid, no-nonsense performance that focused more on forward motion than illumination, but gave his singers room to breathe and act. Wolfgang Weber's direction is more sensible with this caliber of performer than it was some four years ago when casting was almost totally wrong. Beni Monetresor's fairy tale sets and costumes put the action in a wash of blurred color that captured only one part of the story. 'Cendrillon'

"Cendrillon" is the French telling of the Cinderella story, complete with the Fairy Godmother, the glass slipper, the overbearing stepmother and her two gruesome daughters, and her benign but weak father. Massenet has set it all to gossamer, perfumed music that gives it all just the right touch of 19th centruy mood and magic. The Henry Bardon drops-and-flats sets, first seen in Ottawa and looking far better here than in Washngton, D.C., a few seasons back, added to the wonderfully old-fashioned flavor of the opera. Suzanne Mess's costumes ravishingly fit the mood.

And in soprano Sheri Greenawald, the opera had a heroine of ideal grace, beauty, and vocal quality that mezzo Frederica von Stade, who originated the role in the production when seen in Ottawa and Washington, could not begin to project. Three principals seen in Washington repeated the roles in San Francisco: Delia Wallis in the male role of Prince Charming; Maureen Forrester delightful as the stepmother; and Ruth Welting dazzling as the coloratura Fairy Godmother. Donald Gramm was disappointing as the father Pandolfe. In lesser roles, Robert Tate as the master of Ceremonies, and Kaaren Erickson and Laura Brooks Rice as the two sisters, shone. 'Queen of Spades'

"The Queen of Spades," or "Pikovaya Dama," is arguably Tchaikovsky's finest opera. The new production seen here is designed by Robert O'Hearn and directed by Nathaniel Merrill. The former's sets are handsome evocative, and often ideal , though some of his costumes seem a bit excessive. Mr. Merrill's direction proved perfunctory and not particularly alert to the psychological complexities of the characters so crucial to a clear projection of the drama, based on a Pushkin story.

Michail Svetlev's Gherman was not evenly sung, but his is a rip-roaringly elemental voice. When it works, it's exciting, when it doesn't well. . . He is a fine actor (most unusual in tenors), and at all times one knew what was going on in his character's mind. Teresa Zylis-Gara should have been a ideal Lisa, but she is having troubles producing the round gorgeous tones once her trademark. One trusts she will soon fing her way back to her pure way of singing, for she is an important talent and, on this occasion, a fine actress.

Tom Krause's Tomsky was somewhat underpowered, and Stephen Dickson made little impression as Yeletsky, who is graced with such a gorgeous aria. Susan Quittmeyer was the small-scaled Pauline.

It hardly seems possible that Regina Resnik could still be singing the role of the Countess. Yet she truned out to be in far better form than at the Met revival of '72. Though decked out in a rather ludicrous outfit ("Big Bird!," said a friend), she proved riveting in the big scene that leads to her death of fright. As is so often the case today, Miss Resnik proved there is no substitute for experience, and she proved it in a memorable manner.

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