At the Met : Dark Clouds and Hard Times at the Met

The new year at the Metropolitan Opera began under numerous dark clouds, within the house. Under the dismal circumstances, the blizzardous cold wave outside seemed only an incidental distraction.

The company apparently needs support so badly that it has officially renamed the main hall in honor of an exceptionally generous benefactor. Given this illustrious demonstration of what money can buy, New York may soon call the Brooklyn Bridge the Osbert Johnson Bridge, and--who knows?--the Empire State Building could become the Agatha Brill Armstrong Building.

Pick your monument and pay the tab. The prospects boggle.

Be that as it may, the repertory offered in the Sybil Harrington Auditorium was staggeringly stale. The scenery seemed more important than the singers. Bona-fide stars were in short supply. James Levine, the beleaguered artistic director, remained conspicuously absent from his own pit.

A spate of late cancellations--some of them related to the awkward combination of a relatively low pay scale and a chronically devalued dollar--caused cast-shuffling beyond the irrational norm.

The local press treated the blighted company with increasingly obvious, and increasingly justified, disdain. Oddly, however, the general public showed few signs of disapproval.

The inveterate operafanatics may have grumbled, and standing room, their habitual haunt, sometimes may have been sparsely populated. But the masses, easily pleased these days in the land of big, polished apples, carried on as if the mighty Met were offering business as usual.

There's the alarming rub: It probably was.

While shoddy provincial standards threatened to become an alarming norm, audiences continued blithely to fill the house--most of the time, at least--and to pay up to $95 for a ticket. Push-button bravo s resounded whenever the curtain rose on a pretty, glitzy, crowded stage picture. Cheers greeted even the flattest high note--so long as it was powerful--and ovations boomed whenever a hint of a cadence loomed on the sonic horizon.

The season's first performance of "Macbeth" revealed all the symptoms of disorder. The production was a wild critical flop when it was new in 1982, thanks primarily to the eccentric staging of Sir Peter Hall. The current version, overseen by Paul Mills, a house factotum, tones down most of those eccentricities yet remains a bizarre mixture of old-fashioned styles and unfocused impulses. Hall's name, not incidentally, has been removed from the program.

No one approached Verdi's early, uneven, quasi-masterpiece on Jan. 7 expecting dramatic revelations. John Bury's sets--flat, drab and inconsistent evocations of theatrical devices of the mid-19th Century--were still in use. At least one did not have to contemplate the samurai perversions recently imposed on the same opera at the Music Center. And at least, one reasoned, the Met would assemble a compensatory collection of fine singing actors.

One reasoned wrong.

Renato Bruson, Giulini's memorable Falstaff in Los Angeles, had been scheduled to sing Macbeth. He withdrew, presumably because of fiscal considerations.

Giuseppe Sinopoli, the flamboyant Italian maestro, had been scheduled to conduct. He withdrew, reportedly because he didn't want to work with a lesser baritone.

Eva Marton, the popular Hungarian diva, had been scheduled to interpret Lady Macbeth. She withdrew, supposedly because she didn't like the prospect of replacement collaborators when she was singing this difficult role for the first time in her career.

After some fancy international negotiation, the Met enlisted Frederick Burchinal of the New York City Opera for the title role. Elizabeth Connell, the Australian mezzo-turned-soprano, assumed the prima-donna duties. Kazimierz Kord agreed to fly over from Poland to take over the baton.

The result turned out to be a minor triumph of muted competence under stress. Things could have been worse. But, for once, the New Yorkers left a lot of seats empty.

Although Burchinal is neither a heroic singer nor an exciting one, he offered an intelligent, solid, essentially lyrical performance of the title role. He sustained a respectable routine.

Connell did strange things to the Italian text. Her dissimilar vocal devices fluctuated from white, itty-bitty, little-girl sounds to healthy mid-range outbursts to piercing fortissimo climaxes. She barely touched the crucial high D-flat at the end of the Sleepwalking Scene, a tone for which Verdi requested an eerie fil de voce . Nevertheless, she performed with temperament, authority and traces of pathos.

Kord may have missed the ultimate accents of operatic agony and ecstasy. He did, however, provide enough poise, enough expressive propulsion and dynamic clarity to remind us of what Placido Domingo had neglected when conducting the Los Angeles performances last month.

The greatest applause of the evening went to Samuel Ramey, who transformed the fleeting but noble basso duties of Banquo into a star turn. Vyacheslav Polosov, who cancelled "Aida" in Costa Mesa in order to sing Macduff's isolated aria here, sounded beefy. Eva Zseller attracted positive attention in the minor utterances of the lady-in-waiting.

The others, including an awkward chorus of balletic witches and a bare-breasted Hecate with light bulbs in her hair, faded into the bleakness of Bury's canvas woodwork.

The Met had wrung out the old year with a dreary "Fledermaus." It was listlessly, unidiomatically conducted by Manuel Rosenthal. It also was overdressed and undersung. Worst of all, it combined awkward English dialogue with the original German lyrics. "Parsifal" has, on occasion, seemed far more amusing.

For the first performance of 1988, and hardly an auspicious start, the management mustered the final "Traviata" of the season. Everyone involved seemed to be operating on automatic pilot, and none too efficiently.

Diana Soviero served as the attractive, thin-toned, superficially involved Violetta. "Amami, Alfredo" actually went unapplauded.

Allan Glassman, until recently a baritone comprimario with the company, was promoted here to leading tenor; although eminently sympathetic, he found the challenge something of a strain, especially at the final ascending cadence of the cabaletta. Sherrill Milnes' rough and shredded baritone did a disservice to memories of former glory as Giorgio Germont.

In the pit, Thomas Fulton enforced reasonable cohesion but only the vaguest drama.

The physical production, new in 1981, features dull, terminally old-fashioned decors by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. Colin Graham originally provided the uninspired staging scheme; the traffic cop now on duty is David Kneuss.

Puccini's "Turandot," smothered last year by Franco Zeffirelli in tons of chinoiserie kitsch, remains a favorite of those who like their operatic encounters tinselly and mindless.

The latest cast is, if anything, less assertive than the original. Ghena Dimitrova screamed her way through the title role on Jan. 6, alternating huge, wobbly high tones with throw-away mush. Ermanno Mauro partnered her as a clumsy if conscientious Calaf. Franco De Grandis traveled all the way from Turin to introduce a nondescript Timur.

The most sensitive singing by far came from Aprile Millo as Liu. Musically exquisite, her eloquence was compromised by stock gestures and lazy poses.

Nello Santi, a routinier of the old school, waved his stick indulgently in the pit. Everything was very loud and very dull.

The Met did succeed in resembling an important opera company for one performance out of five. The happy exception to the grueling rule involved a remarkably stylish performance of "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" at the Jan. 2 matinee.

Otto Schenk's wily staging and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's lavish, marvelously fanciful designs of 1982 have lost nothing in charm. Charles Dutoit, the new conductor, balanced passion, sentiment and elegance as few of his contemporaries can. One couldn't blame him, of course, for the Met's stodgy reliance upon the time-dishonored Choudens edition.

Neil Shicoff brought feverish intensity and a handsome, slender, intrinsically Gallic tenor to the hero's tribulations. James Morris, even more macabre than in the similar but cheaper San Francisco production, oozed suave basso force as the four villains. Anthony Laciura, like the unforgettable Michel Senechal before him, played the four servants for poignancy rather than easy laughs.

Despite a few troubled top notes, Susan Quittmeyer (a.k.a. Mrs. Morris) enjoyed a magnetic New York debut in the trousers of Nicklausse, capitalizing on the isolated interpolation of the rediscovered romanza in the Munich scene. The official heroines--Gwendolyn Bradley as Olympia, Tatiana Troyanos as Giulietta and, best of all, Roberta Alexander as Antonia--looked marginally better than they sounded.

The Offenbach escapade proved that, on a lucky night or afternoon, the Met still can deliver the goods. It gives one hope, or pause, or both.

During this eight-day visit, the most affecting, most refined singing was not heard at Lincoln Center. It came over a microphone Monday afternoon, Jan. 4, at the old City Center.

The glamorous occasion was a memorial for the great ballerina Nora Kaye. More a show than a service, the program surveyed narrative nostalgia from John Taras, Alicia Alonso, Dame Margot Fonteyn and Leo Lerman. Mike Nichols' verbal tribute combined funereal ardor with off-color humor. Jerome Robbins choked back a valedictory sob. Leonard Bernstein accompanied Isaac Stern (Kaye's first husband) in a Mozart sonata and Stephanie Friede in Strauss' last song.

Leslie Browne, Kaye's prime protegee, danced a snippet from "The Leaves Are Fading" with Robert Hill. A formidable Lynn Seymour came out of retirement to waltz as Isadora Duncan in the manner of Frederick Ashton. Bernadette Peters croaked Stephen Sondheim's wonderful song about children and art.

In some instances, intention proved loftier than execution. But one performance turned out to be ethereal.

Barbara Cook sang "In Buddy's Eyes" from "Follies" with total expressive commitment, with sweetness and simplicity, with an arching legato impeccably controlled and with a floating pianissimo cadence as artful, in its way, as Zinka Milanov's final phrase in "O, patria mia."

One finds bel canto , these days, in the most surprising places.

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