Met Season Marked by Strong Stagings

Under artistic director James Levine, the opera company is working to turn around its ultraconservative image

THE Metropolitan Opera is having its artistically strongest season in years.

Earlier, the company premiered "The Voyage," a Philip Glass opera. In November, it offered a radical rethinking of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" that set conservative operagoers' teeth on edge. Last month, it unveiled a beautiful, ultratraditional new production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," which may not have been a marvel of apt casting, but nevertheless proved deeply satisfying. Several of its major revivals have added further luster to the season.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Met has "settled" for a deeply conservative and traditional style of staging that virtually ignores more than 20 years of innovation and experimentation on European stages. (A wild yet effective new look at Strauss's "Salome" tends to be forgotten in this criticism.) To try to address this apparent oversight, artistic director James Levine invited Francesca Zambello to take a look at "Lucia di Lammermoor," a work that is considered the quintessence of vehicle opera - i n this case, a showcase for a dazzling coloratura soprano. (The production returns to the repertoire in March for eight performances and will feature Sumi Jo in the title role and Alfredo Kraus as Edgardo.)

Ms. Zambello has opted for a nightmare vision of the work - Lucia's nightmare, that is. John Conklin's sets are dark and gray, featuring slabs of Scottish castle - the opera is, after all, based on a Sir Walter Scott novel - sticking shardlike out of the ground. Much of the staging effectively sustains this nightmare mood.

As is so often the case with this kind of production, the overall concept usually does not fit all the plot turns. Plausibility, even in so apparently thin a story as this, is subjugated to the directorial conceit, which leads to many silly moments and a good deal of giggling in the audience.

The cast coped gamely with the good and the bad, and Zambello coaxed a fine dramatic portrayal out of June Anderson, who turned in an exemplary vocal performance as well. Richard Leech, one of the finest actors on the operatic stage today, seemed to have a difficult time fitting the role of Edgardo to his current (and alarming) stentorian mode of singing. The role of Enrico Ashton did not show off baritone Haijing Fu to best effect. Paul Plishka made an authoritative Raimondo. Marcello Panni was the lack luster conductor.

The new "Meistersinger" magnificently suggested the feeling and mood of 16th-century Nuremberg, thanks to Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's impressive (if slightly monochromatic) sets and Rolf Langenfass's handsome costumes, which all manage to look simultaneously fresh yet lived in.

Otto Schenk's direction also tried to be fresh yet lived in: Spontaneity is celebrated, as is a heightened emotionalism, which occasionally led to an annoying hyperactivity on stage. Nevertheless, it all managed to sustain an enchanting mood in this very human and humane production.

A WELL chosen cast of predominantly non-Wagnerian singers cast its own spell. Tenor Francisco Araiza and soprano Karita Mattila were the impetuous lovers, Stolzing and Eva. She was vocally radiant, he rather stressed and tired by the length and weight of the singing, but they interacted well.

Donald McIntyre, the one true Wagnerian, was a Hans Sachs to the manner born, even if the full breadth of the role is now beyond his vocal means. Equally impressive was Hermann Prey as Beckmesser, for once not a caricature but a tragic character. Others of note in the large cast included Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Pogner), Lars Magnusson (David), and John Del Carlo (Kothner).

In the final act, the richness of projection from the expanded Metropolitan Opera Chorus made up for the alarming raggedness in the complex second-act finale.

What bound this entire evening together so memorably was James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: It is indeed a great opera orchestra, and when Mr. Levine, who is just now performing his first "Meistersinger," really began connecting with the score - in Acts II and III - the colors and nuances were extraordinary.

Exceptional conducting also sparked the revival of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Seiji Ozawa, who was making a long overdue Met debut, conjured playing from this orchestra of astonishing beauty and flexibility, giving the ultramelodic score all the necessary drama and passion he could find, without once unsettling a heady forward drive in the drama. His cast was, for the most part, exemplary.

Sergei Leiferkus, making an unexpected Met debut in the title role, offered a magnificently sung and acted portrayal. He returns next season as Iago in the new production of Verdi's "Otello." Mirella Freni (back next year as Adriana Lecouvreur) repeated her vulnerable, affecting Tatyana. Nicolai Ghiaurov suffused Gremin's aria with compassion and nobility. Jerry Hadley seemed comfortable with the role of Lensky only in his big aria, which he delivered with great sensitivity.

For many, the artistic acme of this - or perhaps any other recent season - was the revival of Janacek's "Jenufa" not only because this gripping opera is so rarely performed in this country, but also because the cast was ideal. In the title role, Gabriela Benackova proved once again why she is incomparable in her native Czech operas. She returns next year for a new production of Dvorak's "Rusalka," and for the role of Leonore in Beethoven's "Fidelio." In the demanding role of Laca, tenor Ben Heppner trium phed, both as a singer and an actor of great distinction. Jacque Trussel, in his Met debut, made a suitably caddish Steva. Conductor James Conlon found all the harshness and also all the beauty in this haunting score.

Best of all, however, was the Kostelnicka of Leonie Rysanek - a quintessential showcase for her gifts as one of the greatest sopranos of this half of the 20th century, and one of the most compulsively gripping actresses in operadom. Ms. Rysanek, who returns next season for Klytamnestra in Strauss's "Elektra," was showered with enormous ovations at the end of the second act and at the end of the performance.

In all, it was an evening reminiscent of earlier days, when legendary performances were greeted with legendary ovations.

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