For most of its 30 years, Chicago Lyric Opera has been offering its patrons the highest quality opera to be found in America. This is the company that, among its various credits, offered Maria Callas her US debut, that boasted a Leonie Rysanek/Jussi Bjorling ''Ada'' and the ambitious (but ultimately financially ruinous) world premiere of Penderecki's ''Paradise Lost.'' Whereas one could argue that it is not as difficult to plan seven productions as it is 26 at the Metropolitan Opera, that would not do justice to the fact that it is never easy to put on good opera.
The 30th anniversary season boasts five Lyric Opera premieres (with two new productions, three borrowed) and revivals of two popular works. The most ambitious work the company is undertaking is a new Frank Corsaro production of Strauss's ''Die Frau Ohne Schatten'' with Eva Marton in the title role (Lyric Opera premiere Nov. 19). The most popular pieces are ''Carmen'' and ''The Barber of Seville.''
The season opened with ''Onegin,'' followed a week later by ''Arabella.'' Production values have always been high at Lyric, and these two operas were no exception. Pier Luigi Samaritani's romantic painterly visions of Tchaikovsky's scenes from Pushkin are as beautiful as one could ever want. Only the final scene of the second act, which Samaritani sets near a dilapidated lakeside dock in the late fall rather than near a mill in winter, lacked realism and naturalness. The costumes were all unusually handsome, and Mr. Samaritani has given Tatiana two extraordinarily elegant, flattering dresses for her third act appearances.
The ''Arabella'' production is borrowed from Covent Garden and is at least 15 years old. Close scrutiny shows just how much wear and tear the sets have endured over the years, but since ''Arabella'' is supposed to take place in a rather seedy environment of tattered elegance, it works very well. The second act had just the right touch of garishness, and the final scene gave the right mood and proportions of playing space. In both instances Duane Schuler's magnificent lighting must be cited. He knows full well what operatic lighting demands - even in dark scenes one must be able to see faces. He also knows about illusion, about soft edges, and about sharp contrasts that do not remind the viewer that these are merely sets. It is nice to know that the principles of lighting as opera demands are being met with particular distinction by Mr. Schuler.
Singing is at the core of opera, and singing is what the Lyric offers generous quantities of. In the ''Onegin,'' Italian soprano Mirella Freni was singing her first Tatiana anywhere (and her first role in Russian). The Onegin was German baritone Wolfgang Brendel, also new to this role. In the small but showy role of Prince Gremin, Nicolai Ghiaurov was lavishly (and appropriately) cast.
For Miss Freni, the role of Tatiana does not come utterly naturally as yet. The challenging ''Letter Scene'' was a study in sumptuous singing rather than character projection. But in the final scene, where Tatiana renounces Onegin, she comes into her own. She revealed the right fundamental instincts, and the sound of her voice in this music is particularly glorious. Mr. Brendel sings the music with verve, but also as yet lacks the requisite histrionic dimension to make one believe he is a callous, bored aristocrat.
In the role of the poet Lenski, who ends up being shot by Onegin in a senseless duel, Peter Dvorsky reveals unexpected depths of interpretive insight; his singing throughout was not only balm to the ears, but subtly poetic throughout. Mr. Ghiaurov's patrician demeanor and noble lower register ensured Gremin's aria being an important moment. Mezzo Sandra Walker had all the low notes for Olga, and acted sweetly. All the performers were in obvious need of pointed stage guidance from Mr. Samaritani. Alas, his directing skills are as slender as his designing skills are magical. And in the pit, Lyric artistic director Bruno Bartoletti did not seem to connect with the vibrant, propulsively dark mood of the score. So often, rhythms were blunted, edges were smoothed over , and odd voicings were emphasized at the expense of forward dramatic motion.
Kiri Te Kanawa can be said to own the role of Arabella today. Nevertheless, the second performance found her in puzzling form - interpretively remote, tenuous throughout much of the evening, vocalized almost completely without lower voice (as a consequence chunks of her performance went unheard). But her statuesque beauty holds her in good stead, and when the voice hits the upper notes of the range, the sound is undeniably thrilling. Her Mandryka, Ingvar Wixell, brings his vast stage experience and his sonorous baritone to a demanding role and emerges with distinction. As Arabella's sister Zdenka, Barbara Daniels could hardly be improved upon histrionically or vocally: She gave us radiant, limpid singing, with a penetrating edge when needed. Indeed, these two singers are as close to ideal in their roles as can be had today.
In smaller roles, Gordon Greer managed to make Matteo a little less simpy than is the custom; Sunny Joy Langton tackled the Fiakermilli's fiendish coloratura with ease and charm. In the pit, John Pritchard gave a commendable, singerly account of the score with a care and attention to detail lacking in his work at the Met in seasons past.
In fact, everyone seems to give more at the Lyric than in other houses, perhaps because, under general director Ardis Krainik, a real sense of company spirit has returned. Surely, her returning black ink to the ledger books has not harmed the confidence Lyric Opera exudes onstage and all around the opera house. Next year's casting looks even stronger than this year's, if such a thing is possible. Clearly, the state of opera in Chicago is rosy, as evidenced by these opening productions.