For centuries, music-loving Italians have spurned Rome opera. Popes banned it in its early years. After the ban was lifted, Italians continued to favor the companies in Turin, Milan, Venice, and Naples. Romans yawned when fellow citizens erected an imposing opera house - the Teatro Costanzi - here in 1880. They shrugged when the house tried to boost its image by changing its name in 1928. Mussolini gave the opera a new facade in the 1930s - a cement entrance that did nothing for the building's aesthetic appeal and less for its resident company.
But none of these setbacks has dissuaded the opera house from defying what seems to be fate.
Another image-changing effort was made four years ago when a new superintendent - Alberto Antignanti - was appointed. By scheduling seldom-performed operas among the staples of the repertory, and by engaging internationally famous stars with which to highlight the season, he is making an all-out effort to improve the reputation of the Teatro dell'Opera and its productions.
The 1986/87 season at Teatro dell'Opera is a case in point. It opened Nov. 11 with the all but unknown, infrequently performed ``Agnes von Hofenstaufen'' of Gaspare Spontini starring Montserrat Caball'e.
``Agnes von Hohenstaufen'' was Spontini's last opera. It premi`ered in Berlin in 1927. Spontini had moved to this Prussian capital seven years earlier when he accepted Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III's invitation to become court musician. While in residence, Spontini was heavily influenced by the Germanic style of operatic writing, and ``Agnese'' shows it. It is extremely ponderous and slow-moving in its dramatic action. Though melodic throughout, there are no memorable arias or ensembles of note. For all the big scenes, the chorus is on stage, and for them the composer wrote some good, solid choral music.
The Teatro dell'Opera pulled out all the stops when it came to the stage decoration. The sets by Nicola Reubertelli were huge, grandoise, and imposing as befits an opera in the grand tradition. There were pillared portals and billowing banners to suggest the royal court in the city of Mainz in the year 1194. There were prison scenes and wedding scenes, and, at the climax, the courtyard of the Emperor's castle in Mainz.
The costumes by Maurizio Monteverde were no less magnificent, the Emperor robed in the richest of furs, the Archbishop of Mainz caped in the most opulent of gold brocades, the princes of the Holy Roman Empire crowned and garbed in regal fashion.
Montserrat Caball'e sang the title r^ole of Agnese di Hohenstaufen, a woman whose fianc'e, Enrico ``il Palatino,'' is caught in the war between the Guelfs (Hohenstaufen in the German language) and the Ghibellines, the papists and anti-papists. Miss Caball'e was in excellent voice for opening night, and, in a musically rather ungrateful r^ole, provided the most memorable moments of the evening. Her opening scene in Act I - ``Quando Zefiro a volo mi sfiorava ...'' - was especially beautiful and moving. Veriano Luchetti displayed his bright, exciting tenor voice to best advantage in the aria ``Silente e tetro.'' Unfortunately Rainer Buse commanded neither the voice nor the stage presence needed to portray the musically and dramatically important part of Henry VI, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The balance of the cast ranged from adequate to good.
Because it was a flawed production of a rather mediocre work, the nationwide telecast of this inaugeral event of the season can do little to change the popular opinion of where the Teatro dell'Opera stands in the hierarchy of Italian opera houses. Perhaps the balance of the season can somewhat offset this weak beginning.