French opera keeps a hold on the public by means mostly of Bizet's ''Carmen'' and Offenbach's ''The Tales of Hoffmann'' these days. Gounod's ''Faust'' has been banished from the Metropolitan Opera, though the company has successfully mounted Poulenc's ''Dialogues of the Carmelites,'' a work to be seen in San Francisco (in the Met staging) this fall. The New York City Opera has made a big hit out of Bizet's ''The Pearl Fishers.'' Few houses have bothered with Massenet's ''Manon'' very recently. If it weren't for Alfredo Kraus and Joan Sutherland, many works unusual and even those once considered quite common, would not be mounted at all.
The record industry straddles the line as well. If a vocal superstar the likes of Miss Sutherland wants to sing unusual repertoire, the listening and buying public can have a chance at obscure Massenet. Thanks to her, we have that composer's ''Esclarmonde,'' and more recently ''Le Roi de Lahore.'' The latter work was Massenet's first smash hit - the work that put him on the operatic map. It is full of rousing scenes and ensembles; some marvelous solos for the principals; and vivid, interesting melodies.
The set (London 3LDR - 10025 - digital, 3 records) boasts Miss Sutherland, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Luis Lima, and James Morris, with Richard Bonynge conducting the National Philharmonic. It's a bang-up job in every way, full of fire and drama. Bonynge plays up the ultra-theatrical side impressively without shirking the haunting, melting lyricism. Miss Sutherland is not in the freshest voice, but it makes little difference. It's a score worth getting to know, and it's presented here with great panache.
''Werther'' is another Massenet work that pops up sporadically - usually when a house has a tenor who wants to sing it. When the tenor is Alfredo Kraus, who could object? He is the Werther of the day. He fully understands the poetry, the brooding introversion, the character's inability to do more than rail against situations he has not the force to do something about. On a recent Angel set (SZLX - 3894 - 3 records) he is given a good framework within which to offer his legendary performance, and he emerges in every way the star. Tatiana Troyanos's fast vibrato and sultry approach to Charlotte robs the part of nuance and depth. Matteo Manuguerra and Christine Barbaux are the strong Albert and Sophie. The London Philharmonic Orchestra plays well for Michel Plasson, though he lacks the requisite spontaneity and sense of passion to make this score really come to life.
Riccardo Chailly's conducting is more to the point on the DG performance ( 2709 091 - 3 records) - volatile and explosive, yet tender and moody when needed. The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra gives him its all, and he scales the work to a large theater. This is most necessary when the Charlotte is Russian mezzo Elena Obraztsova, who gives a brilliant, larger-than-life account of the work. Those seeking intimacy will have to look elsewhere. Those seeking a full-blooded interpretation with plenty of vocal style and surprisingly good French need look no further. She is very much the star of the performance, for Placido Domingo's performance in the title role is subdued and a bit strained in the upper reaches. Arleen Auger (Sophie) and Kurt Moll (Baillie) give splendid support, Franz Grundheber (Albert) considerably less.
Frederica von Stade's Charlotte could be construed as intimate. But intimacy means small-scale not bland, and on the new Philips set (6769 051 - 3 records), though her French is diligent, she reveals neither the personality nor the evenness of voice to make a really satisfying heroine. Her Werther is Jose Carreras, and he, too, turns in a faceless, though very well-sung performance - the voice sounding fresher than it has of late. Isobel Buchanan makes much more of Sophie than usual, Thomas Allen somewhat less of Albert. Sir Colin Davis leads a handsome performance - surely his best operatic performance to date. The Covent Garden forces play handsomely, and the sound is particularly sumptuous.
Miss von Stade can be heard to ideal effect on the EMI set of Debussy's ''Pelleas et Melisande'' under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. This opera needs very special treatment from a conductor who knows how to make the score sound fragile, misty, ethereal. With the Berlin Philharmonic under his baton, there is nary a moment that does not fail to bewitch and dazzle for its control, its conviction, its unerring sense of rightness. Miss von Stade is an enchanting Melisande; Richard Stillwell brings the ideal light-baritone sound to his Pelleas.
It is Karajan's show, and the singers go with him all the way. I recommend trying to find the German EMI-Electrola pressing of this set (1C 165 - 03 650/52 - 3 records, available through German News Company, New York) since my domestic Angel review copy contained distortion at the slightest hint of an orchestral crescendo.
Gounod's ''Mireille'' is today merely a novelty item. There is a case to be made for this charming little work, but not really as heard on the new Angel recording (SZCX - 3905 - 3 records). Mirella Freni assumes the title role in what is billed as the original version. Thus, the most popular tune, Mireille's ''Valse-Ariette,'' is missing, even as an appendix. Miss Freni is the Marguerite on a distressingly routine ''Faust'' (Angel SZDX - 3868 - 4 records) that only has Georges Pretre's animated conducting going for it. The principals - which also include Mr. Domingo and Mr. Ghiaurov - are well below their accustomed form. Thomas Allen is a fine Valentin, Miss Command a pert Siebel, Jocelyne Taillon a passable Marthe. The sound is superb; the ballet music is wisely tagged on as an appendix.
Bizet's ''Carmen'' has undergone a radical change from the days when it was performed without dialogue. Fritz Oeser's edition of the Opera-Comique version has been scrutinized on vinyl by Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti in the past, and now by Lorin Maazel and Claudio Abbado. Maazel's is actually a performance dating back to the early '70s, but recently released for the first time in the United States as a Eurodisc import (300 197 - 440 - 3 records). It features Anna Moffo in the title role, Franco Corelli as Jose, Helen Donath as Micaela, Piero Cappuccilli as Escamillo, and Mr. Maazel in charge of the Deutschen Oper Berlin chorus and orchestra. The conductor is always interesting. Corelli is, typically , thrilling of voice, untidy of style. Miss Moffo makes a stab at the title role; the rest of the cast is committed. Corelli fans will not be disappointed, and the sound is stunning.
Maestro Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra offered a staged ''Carmen'' at the Edinburgh Festival several years back that was acclaimed as definitive. The Carmen on that occasion was Teresa Berganza, and she joins the conductor and orchestra on the new DG set (2709 083 - 3 records). It is a variation of the Oeser score, with lots of dialogue spoken by the singers rather than French actors. The French is more than adequate though a bit singsong in the dialogue.
Abbado gives a careful rather than a convincing account of the score. Miss Berganza is a superb artist, but here she is rather bland. Mr. Domingo is the vocally handsome Jose, Mr. Milnes the robust Toreador; Ileana Cotrubas the affecting Micaela.
But the set never really comes to life: It is studied, under perfect control; one hears much in a new way, but there is no spontaneity. Also, the singers pronounce names in the Spanish rather than French style - thus Jose sounds more like Hoh-sseh rather than Djoh-zeh - which is annoying and rather pretentious. This is French opera, after all, not Spanish, despite the locale.