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'What opera are they putting on?' The answer shouldn't be predictable

A basic part of good repertoire planning is introducing audiences to new or unfamiliar operas, rather than just reexposing them to standard works they have encountered countless times in the past.

In recent weeks, New York's two opera houses have offered three works that can hardly be considered part of the standard repertoire. Although in two of them the companies did not put on their best shows, they nonetheless demonstrated that each of the three operas in question deserves permanent status on the staples list.

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Carlisle Floyd's ''Susannah,'' his most popular opera, and a favorite among college and amateur troupes, is receiving its first New York City Opera revival in quite some time. Italo Montemezzi wrote one of the great basso-vehicle operas of all time -- ''L'Amore dei Tre Re'' -- being heard for the first time at the City Opera. Verdi's ''I Vespri Siciliani,'' now in revival at the Metropolitan Opera, has never caught on, despite its remarkable music and rousing theatricality.

Floyd's opera may have been daring in the '50s, as it tells the tale of Susannah, falsely accused of licentiousness by a mean-spirited pack of revivalist Christians in Tennessee. It seems a bit tame now, but it does offer a compelling evening of operatic theater if well done -- a splendid chance for good singing actors to make the most of several meaty roles. The Rev. Olin Blitch is one of those roles, and Samuel Ramey made the most of it. The title role can be devastating. Faith Esham did not shows the force of character, the warmth, or the passion to be anything more than a competent Susannah.

The rest of the cast -- including John Stewart, David Hall, Muriel Costa-Greenspon, James Billings -- blended into the show with skill. Lou Galterio's staging tended to let the actors fend for themselves on Ming Cho Lee's handsome though Spartan set. In the pit, the galvanizing presence of Bruce Ferden in his debut set a mark of distinction on the evening.

This was, in truth, the best show the City has put on in quite some time. The audience was caught up and riveted by a dramatic work, sung in English by a good cast enunciating clearly.

Bellini's ''I Puritani'' was another story -- sung in Italian, with singers less than suited to their roles. Ashley Putnam lacks the high notes to sing bel canto roles, and her grasp of style tended toward the rudimentary. Tenor Chris Merritt offered strong high notes (which he did not sing in the last act), and an often impressive technique, with less than tidy musicianship. J. Patrick Raftery's mightily impressive baritone seemed overextended here, with an alarming inconsistency and thinness in the upper reaches for one so young. David Cumberland's bass lacks support, and after in impressive first act, he tired startlingly. Theo Alcantara conducted with authority and a keen sense of Bellini style.

The few flawed vocal performances in ''Susannah'' did not matter, however, for the drama was compelling. The audience acclaim was proof that the company should be doing American operas with greater regularity. This is the repertoire in which the City made its reputation.

Montemezzi's opera is lurid but quite static, relying on a rich, animated musical undercurrent and powerful vocal lines to give the story of Archibaldo's vigilance over his unfaithful daughter-in-law Flora its dramatic thrust. The score demands great singing actors to make this smoldering melodramatic tale engross an audience.

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The New York City Opera production boasted Ramey as Archibaldo. His is not the deep bass voice needed for optimum effect, nor is he really old enough to make the king creak with age and show the corrosive bitterness required. But he sings handsomely, is a splendid actor - the finest at the City Opera -- and turns in a tour de force performance. Noelle Rogers, replacing Carol Neblett, found the role out of her vocal and histrionic range. Constricted vocal output by James McCray as Avito produced little effect.

In the pit, John Mauceri got through the score, but did not seem to revel in its opulence or its passionate drama.

The production was designed and poorly lit by Beni Montresor, and while it defined a certain grandiose locale, the see-through walls and oddly placed staircases obscured the sense of claustrophobic massiveness needed. It was hard to believe that Frank Corasro, so splendid in the recent ''Cunning Little Vixen, '' could have turned in such an unintentionally comedic set of cliches and tired gestures to bring this piece to life.

Miss Neblett will sing Fiora April 13, and the production will be back next fall. With some cast changes, it could be quite a fine show.

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