Sizing up the Met's centennial season: it's not what it could be

The Metropolitan Opera has reflected an odd imbalance throughout its centennial season. Some of the performances boasted top names, and occasionally we got a Sutherland-Kraus combination, or a Scotto-Domingo. But often even the name singers did not mesh with the otherwise erratic casts around them.

In truth, only one evening really captured the Met as it should be - the gala concert celebrating Leonie Rysanek's 25th anniversary with the company. And one new production reminded one anew just what a fantastic resource the Met can be: the costly but magnificent staging of Riccardo Zandonai's ''Francesca da Rimini.'' In both cases, music director James Levine was at the helm, which is as it should be.

The Met closes its season Saturday evening and then promptly embarks on its annual spring tour with an ambitious array of operas and some of the strongest casting the tour cities have seen in years, including Levine's first performance of Wagner's ''Die Walkure.''

The company's closing weeks were devoted to revivals of Mozart's ''Abduction from the Seraglio,'' Verdi's ''Don Carlo,'' Britten's ''Billy Budd'' and Puccini's ''Manon Lescaut'' (which I did not attend). The first three mentioned are all John Dexter productions. Of the three, ''Billy Budd'' is the best - probably the finest production Dexter conceived for the house during his generally unsuccessful tenure as director of production. Britten's opera is an intimate telling of the Herman Melville story of a young innocent sailor (the embodiment of goodness) and his tangling, aboard the HMS Indomitable, with the Master at Arms, John Claggart (absolute self-confessed evil).

William Dudley's set - the stern one-third of a man-of-war - splits into as many as four levels during the evening. It is visually stunning, perfectly suited to this large a house. The all-male cast - including the men of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus - is large and uniformly solid, with the possible exception of Michael Best's too whiny Novice.

But the opera rests on the Budd and on the Captain Edward Fairfax Vere. The latter was magnificently impersonated by Richard Cassilly - superb of diction, strong of voice, and sensitive and eloquent of interpretation. The former was played winningly by Dale Duesing, though only competently vocalized. In the pit, Met newcomer David Atherton took an astringent view of Britten's lean but telling score, underplaying the beauty, overplaying the biting dissonances.

Dexter has always been far less secure in the standard opera literature. Indeed, his ''Abduction'' is close to a disaster for its rudimentary attempts at humor, its moving around just to fill time, its general lack of any sense of the opera, and the setting in which the opera is placed. The production is not aided by Jocelyn Hebert's monotonous cut-out blue sets. Unfortunately, the singing was hardly up to what the Met should be offering in this sort of opera. Catherine Malfitano's Konstanze was strident and uneven. Judith Blegen's confidently American stage presence had little to do with charming Blondchen, and she evinced serious trouble in the upper reaches of the voice. Philip Creech , her Pedrillo, was simply not of any acceptable major operatic standard. Artur Korn, the Osmin, presented a certain dulled routine competence and a weakness in the lower register in a role that should be a tour de force.

So it was up to newcomer Francisco Araiza, the Belmonte, to save the vocal show, and he almost managed it. The voice is slightly nasal, but ringing, smooth , and appealing, though he lacks finesse in the extended florid passages. Nevertheless, in this tenor-poor age, he is a welcome addition to the roster. Julius Rudel is the quintessential singers' conductor, but his cast rarely seemed to want to fit into his ebulliently Mozartean framework.

The ''Don Carlo,'' which will be broadcast on radio this Saturday (beginning at 1 p.m. EST - check local listings) boasted Montserrat Caballe as Elizabeth of Valois and the debut of Finnish baritone Jorma Hynninen as Rodrigo. The Dexter production is nothing more than costumed stage movement, with the performers doing pretty much what they want. In the case of Miss Caballe, even by her own phlegmatic standards, this was a particularly inanimate outing.

Mr. Hynninen is a fine artist with a very even, lyric sort of baritone. He sounds well suited to Mozart and the non-Italianate repertoire. His Posa, however, proved mannered and disturbingly un-Verdian in approach. Tatiana Troyanos had one of her best nights in several seasons as Eboli, particularly in the big aria ''O don fatale,'' which she delivered to the rafters in volatile, committed fashion. In the title role, Giuliano Ciannella began well enough, but long before the first act ended, he was in vocal troubles which robbed him entirely of voice by performance's end. Paul Plishka has not grown in the role of Philip since his last try at the role a few seasons back. He is now more interested in endlessly held high notes than in plumbing the depths of this tortured, complex character.

At a later performance, the Bulgarian soprano Stefka Evstatieva debuted as Elizabeth. She has great potential as an actress, and the voice is unabashedly beautiful when she is not trying to make too much sound with it. But whereas one sensed throughout that this was a singer not yet ready for such a taxing role, one also heard important potential, and a singer to be held on to. Shirley Verrett joined the cast as Eboli, a mezzo whose regal beauty is a constant joy to behold. Alas, the voice no longer has the luster and reliability that could have made this performance legendary rather than merely accomplished.

At this performance, James Levine's conducting came to life the way it seemed not to do opening night of this revival. He, too, is a singers' conductor, and when the singers offer no foil against which to react, Mr. Levine's work tends to slump. Thus, with Miss Evstatieva he was at times more assertive and helpful, and more pliant and attentive to drama than with Miss Caballe.

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