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Season opens with Bellini, Wagner; What's happening at the Met? More careful planning needed

The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera 98th season was a flat-out fiasco. How could so respected a house have allowed such a thing to come to pass? How is it that all the decisions made by the artistic duo of music director James Levine and assistant manager Joan Ingpen came together to create an evening that was an embarrassment to its stars, to the gathered audience who had paid high-priced benefit tickets. It certainly will go down in Met annals as one of the grimmest evenings of recent memory.

The opera in question was Bellini's "Norma." The title role is perhaps the most exacting, taxing one in the literature, one that only a few great dramatic sopranos ever used to bother tackling -- that is, until the recent past, when the role became open territory for anyone with the temerity to attempt it. The soprano of the evening was the Met's reigning star, Renata Scotto. Her Adalgisa and Pollione were Tatiana Troyanos and Placido Domingo, respectively. Mr. Levine conducted.

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Mr. Levine and Miss Ingpen are justifiably proud of their schedules, which have them working three to five seasons in advance. This "Norma" has been in the wind for several seasons now. Miss Scotto has already recorded it (with the principals of this performance). She offered her interpretation to the Houston Grand Opera public several seasons back. Judging from a radio broadcast of that production, it was an interesting but small-scale performance.

Since then Miss Scotto has tacked roles that have been utterly out of her reach in terms of vocal weight: A singer who excels in the fragile Puccini heroines was never meant to sing Ponchielli's "La Gioconda" or particularly "Norma." But now Miss Scotto seems to feel she can coolly sidestep all vocal hurdles and with her incredible attention to word projection and her uncommonly imaginative use of a somewhat limited lyric soprano, make her mark on roles she would never has thought of attempting five years ago.

Opening night was the scene of three dramas -- the opera itself, the actions of a group of Scotto detractors determined to humiliate her, and a visceral battle of Miss Scotto herself with a role out of her reach in so big a house -- especially with a voice in questionable shape today. Before she had even opened her mouth, she was the target of a pointed, tasteless heckel. After the "Casta diva," there was some audible protest. At the end of her scene, she exited to a volley of boos. Then the organized anti-Scotto faction became quite silent. More telling was the reaction of the traditionally polite opening-night audience -- vocal runs greeted with groans, laughter, gasps of amazement that so fine an artist could go so hopelessly awry. After all, never before at this house has Miss Scotto been able to salvage only a few fleeting moments.

Miss Troyanos was not in much better shape vocally, and histrionically she was barely a cipher. Mr. Domingo did not offer a star turn as Pollione, thought he is one of the few stars who has been invited to do the role in too long a time. Bonaldo Giaiotti's Orovseo was respectable, the new staging by Fabrizio Melano was not. And Desmond Heeley's reworking of his original 1970 production is best left uncommented upon, considering how fine a designer he really is (witness the stunning "Manon Lescaut" unveiled two seasons back).

Mr. Levine's reading was an elegaic, often ponderous, too-loud account of Bellini's magical score. But more pressing was the matter of how he let this performance get beyond early rehearsals. The argument of "who else is there" (in the way of singers) seems not to hold water here. This sort of evening happens without warning. It is at unhappy times like these that the artistic direction of the house is put to the test. This time around, the grade the team gets is "F." Wagner

And the grade they should get for the two parts of Wagner's "Ring" offered later in the week is not much higher. There was no way of knowing that venerated maestro Erich Leinsdorf would be so surprisingly mechanical in "Das Rheingold" and downright pedestrian in "Siegfried."

Granted, the casts he was given to work with were hardly top drawer. In fact , two character singers walked off with these two "Ring" installments -- Heinz Zednik as Mime and Franz Mazura as Alberich. The former, making his Met debut, revealed a tenor of unusual pliancy and vocal color, and the sheer imaginative use of the voice made for a compelling, brilliant characterization. The noble Mr. Mazura comes from the rapidly vanishing old school of Wagner singing that to date has had no replacement.

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Franz Ferdinand Nentwig's Wotan in "Rheingold," and especially in the last of "Siegfried" (replacing an indisposed Donald MacIntyre, who tried to get through the first two acts anyway), was not commendable. Other debuts in the "Rheingold" included Eva Randova as a rather faceless Fricka, Birgit Finnila as a resonant if low-key Erda, and Eleanor Bergquist as a forthright Woglinde.

Manfred Jung bowed as Siegfried. He is no answer to the heldentenorm shrtage, but his voice is more pleasing then several more eminent Siegfrieds of recent years. He knows how to husband his voice so he is not tired at the end of the long, long role. Unfortunately, he showed no real personality, either, and allowed himself such silly stage nonsense as trying to hurdle an anvil (he didn't make it).

Elizabeth Payer was debuting as the "Siegfried" Brunnhilde, and she offered the only moments of vocal gold in these three evenings of Met opera. She does not as yet know how to manage consistently her huge voice, but at its best there is a good bottom, an erratic middle, and a glorious free, warm, ringing top that soars cleanly over an orchestra. She is a find, if only she can learn to control the treasure she has in her throat.

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