Theatricality in opera: two radically different approaches

I didn't realize Peter Brook's ''La tragedie de Carmen'' had made any deep impression on me until I was watching the Metropolitan Opera's new production of ''Ernani'' lumber its tedious way toward midnight.

Coming out of the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center, I had been disappointed in the six-performer Brook affair. True, it had theatrical magic, and the singers all knew exactly what they were singing about. Most of the acting was direct, to the point, and remarkably alert to nuance. But I did not think it added up to much. And the tampering with Bizet was deeply upsetting: This was not the essence of Bizet, as had been heralded here and abroad, but Bizet drawn and quartered (see review in the Nov. 18 Arts and Leisure section).

Admittedly, it is not billed as Bizet's ''Carmen.'' Brook has intimated in interviews that the Prosper Merimee novella was his source, but even that seems questionable. Things happened here that go beyond even Merimee. Brook and his musical collaborator, Marius Constant, have plotted out this ''Carmen'' and then made Bizet fit the moment. Brook's antiheroine is more volatile, more of the earth than Bizet's. What took four tight acts for Bizet to accomplish, Brook has pared down to 80 intermissionless minutes. So the core of each character is always on view, without Bizet's depth and subtlety. (Further comment on the musical aspects of Brook's event will be reserved for a later column, for it raises so many provocative issues.)

All this said, ''La tragedie de Carmen'' had a theatrical vitality that was all the more startling when juxtaposed the following evening with the Met's new ''Ernani.'' It's only Verdi's fifth opera but it has plenty of the Verdi-to-come in it, and also has its share of exciting ensembles, scenes, and arias.

A lean new production that highlighted the work's melodramatic core (Verdi took the controversial Victor Hugo play ''Hernani'' as the basis of the opera) would have been welcome. Instead, the Met mounted a lavish production, with four heavy acts and three interminable intermissions. Pier Luigi Samaritani designed the huge sets, which were given a massive painterly appearance by means of a permanent scrim. Visually, it was quite handsome. Director Samaritani, however, merely had his singers stand and emote.

It is no wonder that theater people have developed this curious notion that even at its very best, opera acting is done by overweight creatures who semaphor themselves into a frenzy. Actually, this ''Ernani'' didn't even rely on those semaphors, and there was no frenzy anywhere. Rather, singers were all but glued to their spots on stage. A crossover seemed more often planned to break up the stage picture rather than to make a dramatic moment.

This is not what operatic acting at its best is all about. To have seen, say, a Regine Crespin at the Met put forth her definitive Carmen is to have witnessed a complete, superbly delineated, expertly projected portrayal of an infinitely fascinating character, wherein each histrionic decision made came from the music.

Curiously, it was the very theatrical values that Brook sought to instill in his ''Carmen'' that interfered with some of the singing, and his staging decisions often ran counter even to the music he chose to use. Yet there was a directness of on-stage communication, and an intimacy impossible in all but the smallest opera houses. No wonder theater people have been turning to his ''Carmen'' as an example of what opera should aspire to. On its own terms, it grabs interest and holds it. As an isolated theatrical experience, it has more than passing merit, even while it has nothing to do with opera.

At the Met, Samaritani has not restructured Verdi, though his stand-and-emote directorial style actually sets opera staging back several decades. When the emoter is Luciano Pavarotti (singing his first Met Ernani), one finds a certain idiomatic veracity, even if the tenor seemed in indifferent form opening night. In the role of Elvira, soprano Leona Mitchell still sounded beautiful but the voice seems to be thinning out. Interpretively, she brought nothing to the role.

Sherrill Milnes, who has been cancelling a good deal of late, did not find his vocal stride until his big aria in the third act. Ruggero Raimondi gave the most consistently Verdian performance of the evening, even if the voice is not really the sort of imposing bass one wants for the role of the evil Silva. None of the gritty ensembles took wing, though music director James Levine brought great energy and power to the score.

When Franco Zeffirelli's production of ''La Boheme'' was unveiled two seasons ago, critics cried foul over spending $750,000 on a ''Boheme.'' Of course, it is one of the most popular operas in the repertory. ''Ernani'' is not in the same repertory category. At best it is good for the odd revival. Making the production so lavish and so lifeless plays right into the hands of those who say opera is a moribund art form beyond resuscitation. No wonder they think Brook has the answer.

Domingo on TV

Next week a curious TV production will be aired on PBS called Placido Domingo Celebrates Seville (Monday, Dec. 5, check local listings for pre-miere and repeats). The idea was to take a series of arias set in Seville and have Mr. Domingo interpret them on location.

But few pretty shots of the city are offered. The tenor talks about the city here and there, but not at great length. One gets no feel for this beautiful place. There are no subtitles in the show. And some of director Placido Domingo's costumes and wigs are grossly unflattering.

Fortunately, Mr. Domingo sings well, and his fans will be happy to see and hear him in such a wide range of repertoire, including two roles - Figaro and Count Almaviva - in a ''Barber of Seville'' excerpt, and ''Don Giovanni.'' James Levine conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The program is a part of the ''Great Performances'' series, without doing the name any great honor.

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