One still senses at the New York City Opera a company in search of a profile. But there are more than fleeting glimmers of that profile on view these days. The season's opening performance of a new production of Rossini's ''The Barber of Seville'' was an artistic flop, but vocally not without appeal. Since then, the company has unveiled a Spanish Civil War ''Carmen'' (which will be discussed here later this month), along with a new production of Puccini's ''La Rondine.''
It has been a long time since hearty, boisterous ovations rang out consistently at the New York City Opera in something like the standard operatic repertoire. But that is exactly what happened at the first night of ''Rondine,'' Puccini's only stab at operetta. The word operetta is used advisedly, for although the tunes are rich and haunting, a true Puccini tone - a la ''Madama Butterfly'' or ''La Boheme'' - pervades the music, placing it much more in the land of true Puccini than Franz Lehar. Unfortunately, a bad aura has accompanied this work, perhaps because people were expecting froth and got, instead, a bittersweet love story, which ended in a less-than-upbeat mood.
Maybe now the time has come to assess the work for its true worth. Puccini was in full command of his compositional powers. At every turn, his master craftsmanship emerges. He gives his heroine a most ravishing aria (immortalized by Leontyne Price on her first recital album for RCA Records). The love scene in the second act is touching; later on there is a rousing chorus that invariably stops the show. At the City Opera, the audience demanded an encore - the first I have ever heard in an opera house - which caught some of the singers totally by surprise.
The last act is dominated by the heroine's renunciation of her new love because she knows her past keeps her from marrying him. Without using a trowel, Puccini gives us all the poignancy and heartache we need in order to get the message, and gives the soprano a superior test of her vocal and acting skills.
Lotfi Mansouri of the Canadian Opera directed the evening; Elizabeth Knighton made her debut as Magda, the swallow (Rondine) of the title; Alessandro Siciliani also made his City Opera debut as conductor.
The entire evening meshed memorably. From the opening bars, it was clear that here was a conductor of unusual merit: The City Opera Orchestra played with rare fervor and honest beauty of tone that evoked the glory days of Julius Rudel's tenure. The Ralph Funicello sets and most of Sam Kirkpatrick's costumes were eye-catching, and Miss Knighton held the stage with poise and ease. Mr. Mansouri's direction was of the utmost simplicity, yet of the utmost style. The period was deftly captured in gesture, and the emotion was directly, fervently projected from all the principals.
Miss Knighton created a complete character from beginning to end. One fully believed that she was a frivolous courtesan who could play the part of a young innocent, snare a young student, and then unwittingly fall in love with him. At opera's end, one felt every last drop of pain as she renounced what she realized was the great love of her life to make that love's life happy.
Vocally, Knighton began a bit tentatively, and one cannot say hers is the easiest top end in the business, in a role that needs such an easy top. And yet, here is clearly a singing-acting talent of unusual accomplishment, and she is clearly a major addition to the City Opera roster. Barry MacCauley, as Ruggero, the love interest, gave his best acting performance to date, although it has to be noted that the top register has become dry and small in proportion to the middle voice, which has gained in roundness and richness. David Eisler found the role of Prunier a bit low for him, but his is a strong stage presence. Claudette Peterson sparkled as the maid Lisette, and Stanley Wexler made much of the small role of Rambaldo.
Mr. Siciliani appears to be a major find. The fluidity with which this score unfolded, the wonderul plasticity of phrasing, and the unerring rightness of tempo are blessed relief in this increasingly metronomic age. The orchestra played as if it really cared; it has been a long time since that orchestra has been allowed to shine in this manner. None of the singing was magnificent, yet it was a full operatic evening in the best sense of the word. At the end, the ovations were enormous. How nice to hear that at the City Opera once again!
There are performances of ''La Rondine'' with this cast through Oct. 5.