Concert operas grow, but current crop of performances is poor

Concert operas perform a great service to the opera-lover who seeks the unusual. In several cities concert-opera groups have been formed that fill an important gap in those cities' musical lives - be it David Stockton's Concert Opera Orchestra in Boston or Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York.

The Chicago Lyric Opera is presenting Marilyn Horne in three concert operas this spring in lieu of the traditional single spring production on stage at the Lyric's Civic Auditorium. The San Francisco Opera has occasionally offered concert or else semistage performances of works that should be heard but cannot justify a full production in these money-strapped times.

And in New York, Carnegie Hall has entered the concert opera production business - last year with the Gala Rossini Festival featuring Miss Horne, this year a French opera comique festival with Frederica von Stade as the focal point.

But it is Miss Queler who has given us the greatest variety of unusual works while presenting acclaimed singers either new to the city or new to certain repertoire.

She opened the current season last fall with Strauss's penultimate opera, ''Die Liebe der Danae,'' followed just two weeks ago with Donizetti's last completed work, ''Dom Sebastien, Roi de Portugal.'' Both works have had a limited performance history. The Strauss work was first staged in the US in Santa Fe two summers ago. ''Dom Sebastien'' is so infrequently encountered that members of the Donizetti Society flew in from London to attend the Carnegie Hall presentation.

Now, Miss Queler has never been the subtlest stylist on an opera podium, as can be heard in any of her CBS-recorded opera performances of Puccini, Verdi, Massenet, and Donizetti. Her determination and sheer spunky grit usually hold her in good stead in the grander pieces. But late Strauss needs a subtler touch than she can manage - as well as an intimate knowledge of all the preceding Strauss operas to bring it fully to life.

It also needs a cast of grand Strauss voices, which in this performance Miss Queler lacked down the line. Rosalind Plowright is touted abroad as the Verdi soprano of tomorrow. In Carnegie, in the role of Danae, she revealed a large, rather loud voice of no distinctive timbre, of no great predictability up top, and no real sense of Strauss vocal style. William Lewis in the crucial role of Midas (the complicated story revolves around Midas of the golden touch, his boss the god Jupiter, and their mutual affection for Danae) was out of voice. Jupiter requires a true heldenbariton : Roger Roloff's baritone has an appealing quality , but he is not strong enough vocally or histrionically to pull it off.

Unfortunately, Miss Queler's resurrection (or, more appropriately, exhumation) of the Donizetti opera never justified itself. She was unable to browbeat this compendium of formula scenes, arias, and encounters into anything like convincing opera, though I doubt even a consummate Donizettian would have succeeded. Her cast was uniformly substandard, despite the presence of several names now appearing on international stages. In the title role Richard Leech showed much promise - with a bright, lyric tenor particularly secure in the upper reaches of an ungrateful role. Klara Takacs's(cq) uneven mezzo turned shrill early on in the lengthy evening; bass Sergej Kopchak has a penetrating, raucous sound to his upper range and is short on low notes; Lajos Miller's baritone lacked breadth and amplitude; baritone Darren Nimnicht made a gruff, slightly hoarse impression in a small but pivotal role.

Last week, the Collegiate Chorale presented the US premiere of Dvorak's little-known fifth opera, ''Dimitri.'' Somewhere in this stolid performance was an opera begging to be brought to life. Unfortunately, Chorale conductor Robert Bass's foursquare, unoperatic way with the score did the music little service. Dvorak's distinctive use of orchestral colors was rarely exploited, although the orchestra assembled here was a good one. The lyric line of some of the gorgeous melodies was rarely found and sustained. The sweeping drama of the full choral scenes seldom mustered sufficient impetus.

Diction was excellent from the committed chorus. Ironically, the opera was sung in a ghastly American English translation (''You idiot! I'm much too sharp for that!'' or ''You shameless girl, how dare you talk such nonsense!'' or even ''Oh horror, it is he!'') credited to John Tyrrell: Moment for moment it was vivid proof of how difficult it is to translate operas, especially from Slavic tongues, with those odd accents which never fit English phraseology comfortably.

The cast included veteran sopranos Martina Arroyo and Maralin Niska, both in fine fettle, and the only high points of an ultimately tedious evening. Cornelius Sullivan, a budding tenor with an attractive and potentially large voice, found the role too high for his as-yet chancily placed high notes. Pamela Coburn, who sings important roles in Munich (and soon in Vienna), offered a thin lyric soprano with no particular stamp of individuality or personality to it. Had Mr. Bass really studied the other Dvorak operas and symphonies, and had he really understood the panoply nature of the drama - somewhat threadbare at best - perhaps a fairer impression of ''Dimitri'' might have been made.

Finally, the only performance in the opera comique series I was able to catch up with this season was a rather low-spirited Offenbach ''La Perichole.'' Miss von Stade proved unable to hold the stage with the requisite sparkle and wit in the title role, and Neil Rosenshein was only intermittently successful in the curiously demanding role of Piquillo. Madeline Kahn wrestled unsuccesfully with a specially written narration; Mario Bernardi's musical leadership never quite brought this deliciously wry Gallic work to life. Perhaps Carnegie was too large a venue for so intimate a piece.

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