The Metropolitan Opera's international reputation has long rested on its ability to cast productions with a dazzling array of stars. In the past few seasons, the company has not been functioning at peak form, but the season that opened Sept. 26 is more promising. It is also the first that Met general manager Bruce Crawford can call his own since taking the reins.
Great casting is not just presenting the best singers in their showcase roles; it is asking great singers to stretch into repertoire one might not normally associate with them. In both these areas the Met has been under par the past few seasons. A dutiful sense of professionalism - getting through without mishap - had begun to color even music director James Levine's performances.
It is encouraging to note that the roster is richer this season and that Mr. Levine is nearly back in top form. His opening night ``Trovatore'' and especially his ``Rheingold'' found him at his best. In ``Trovatore'' he reveled in the orchestral writing, demonstrating that Verdi is too often trivialized by routine readings and that great conductors add a spectacular dimension to the work. His ``Rheingold,'' which was tepid last season, had the texture and expansive pacing of a superb Wagnerian in the making.
The new production of Handel's ``Giulio Cesare,'' unveiled Sept. 27, was profoundly disappointing, however. The entire production team was making its debut. Not only did John Pascoe's gold-hued sets, designed for the English National Opera, look rather insubstantial and kitschy, but director John Copley's staging was limited mainly to vacuous gesticulating. Only Michael Stennett's costumes had any visual impact.
Of the principals, only debuting countertenor Geoffrey Gall gave a Met-scale performance, creating the one convincing characterization and stealing the few scenes Tolomeo is given in this four-hour-plus opera. In the title role, Tatiana Troyanos was off form, as was the usually regal Sarah Walker as Cornelia. In the role of the wily, imperious Cleopatra, soprano Kathleen Battle gave new meaning to the term monochrome - with singing that was soft-edged, musically gooey, and in every aspect insipidly and blandly pretty.
Trevor Pinnock, making both his Met and opera-conducting debuts, got the orchestra to play well but rarely gave the singers the sort of attentive, nuanced support needed for Handel's remarkable vocal score.
The return of ``Rheingold'' (Sept. 28) found the singers heard last season in better form, particularly Hans Sotin, the Wotan. Siegfried Jerusalem repeated his exceptional Loge. Hanna Schwarz, the debuting Fricka, used her vibrant, plummy mezzo effectively and proved outstanding in a part that demands excellence in acting as well as singing. Birgitta Svend'en's debut performance as Erda was suitably mysterious and low-toned.
The opening night ``Trovatore'' was a disappointment, but at least it was a Met-size evening vocally. Pavarotti was rather robotic as Manrico - monotonous of expression, and wan of voice. Eva Marton, though not one's ideal candidate for Verdian soprano, has it in her to make the role of Leonora work on her own terms, but seemed timidly unwilling to try.
Sherrill Milnes managed the big moments, like his aria ``Il balen,'' with ringing tone; Fiorenza Cossotto proved herself the great old-school Italian mezzo she has been for nearly three decades.
But unquestionably the great performance of the week was Edita Gruberova's return to the Met, after a nine-year absence, in Donizetti's ``Lucia di Lammermoor'' (Sept. 30). She is unquestionably the great Lucia of the day, capable of every one of the exceptional demands dictated by this most challenging role. The voice is secure and true from top to bottom; the runs are superb, the staccato singing flawless, the E-flats thrilling, the control over dynamics complete.
All of this is put to the service of a bewitching account of the role, where vocal shading is as important as histrionic awareness to flesh out the characterization of the increasingly mad heroine. Her admirers stopped the show several times throughout the evening with noisy, excited ovations.
Edgardo was sung by Francisco Araiza, whose tenor ranged freely throughout most of the evening, though he did sound tired by the very end, due, no doubt, to the addition of the rarely staged Wolf Glen scene, which offers a showcase for both tenor and baritone (Brian Shexnayder, whose work was disappointing) and helps explain some important plot twists.
In the pit, Edoardo M"uller conducted virtually a note-complete performance of the score with verve, and Bruce Donnell restaged the work as effectively and naturalistically as possible.