Two Superstar Tenors at the Met

Operatic titans in heroic roles and glorious sound dazzle New York at the season's opening

OPENING night at the Metropolitan Opera is always something of a spectacle on both sides of the footlights, but this season's was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, the two most famous tenors in the world, were both celebrating the 25th anniversary of their debut with the company.

In a rare joint appearance last week, the Spaniard and the Italian each performed: the former in Act I of Wagner's ``Die Walkure,'' the latter in Act I of Verdi's ``Otello.'' And for a grand finale, the two surprised the audience by sharing the role of Manrico in Act III of Verdi's ``Il Trovatore.''

The performance, led by James Levine, started at the unusually early hour of 6:30 p.m., both for purposes of the tape-delayed television broadcast and - for those who paid up to $2,500 a ticket - the gala supper that followed.

The host of Secret Service agents in the lobby signaled the presence of a foreign dignitary or two. President and Mrs. Clinton, though in town, opted not to attend, but such lesser lights as Mr. and Mrs. Oscar de la Renta and Paloma Picasso were there.

The singers each chose roles they had not sung before at the Met; it was Domingo's first time singing Siegmund in the United States, and Pavarotti's first time ever in a staged version of ``Otello.'' (He sang it two years ago with the Chicago Symphony in concert.) And though Pavarotti chose the grander, less taxing showcase, Domingo was the real musical star of the evening, singing for virtually the full 75 minutes of Act I with only occasional respites provided by the other two characters onstage.

It's a demanding role, and there were moments when Domingo's tone grew slightly dull around the edges, particularly juxtaposed with Waltraud Meier's sparkling, vibrant, and full-throated sound in the part of Sieglinde.

But Domingo's characteristic ability to give, to sink his teeth into a role, saw him through. And how refreshing to hear a tenor approach Wagner with musical taste - to hear singing rather than bleating.

Siegmund opens ``Die Walkure,'' alone onstage in tattered clothes and sings throughout the entire act. The chorus opens ``Otello,'' setting up a grand entrance for the opera's hero. Clad in princely garb, the Moorish general arrives, sings a few bars, and then leaves for most of the act, returning for a glorious duet with his wife, Desdemona.

So, not surprisingly, Pavarotti chose the better public-relations vehicle and the easier musical route. He also put himself in a more flattering context: Desdemona, played by Kallen Esperian (a Pavarotti prote), sounded sour and off-pitch.

The contrasts in the contexts the two men chose are reflective of the way they have conducted their careers. Domingo never stops; he has sung a total of 34 roles at the Met. Pavarotti has sung 16 and has generally set a more leisurely pace for himself.

Many would argue that Otello is not the role for Pavarotti (it is a trademark for Domingo, who sings it in the Met's new production in March), and that he has to stretch and strain to cover it. Indeed, he was not the ideal. But Pavarotti is still Pavarotti, and to these ears he sounded better than he has in five years, the voice resonant, even robust, its characteristically bright sound ringing out easily over the orchestra.

WITH the role of Manrico Wnoted as ``to be announced'' in the program, one knew something was up: Domingo started out in the part and began the aria, then Pavarotti picked it up, then Domingo came back onstage and the two finished together, attacking the aria's final high C with a vengeance.

A mock duel ensued, then Pavarotti put his arm around his colleague as their swords clanged to the floor for a happy ending. With the exception of Esperian's Desdemona, the supporting casts were generally excellent, including Hans Sotin as Hunding, Mark Baker as Cassio, Sherrill Milnes as Iago (an especially wonderful portrayal), Dolora Zajick as Azucena, Vladimir Chernov as Count di Luna, and Paul Plishka as Ferrando.

As always, the Met Opera Orchestra sounded divine - a consistent aural pleasure and certainly one of the best orchestras in the world.

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