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Handsome, vital Monteverdi operas show PBS at its finest

Claudio Monteverdi is generally acknowledged to have been the first to write opera--in the first half of the 17th century--as we know it today.

Of the 13 operas he wrote, only three have survived: ''L'Orfeo,'' ''Il Ritorno d'Ulysse in Patria,'' and ''L'Incoronazione di Poppea.'' These were the subject of a highly praised series of productions at the Zurich Opera House, guided musically by the eminent early-music specialist Nicholas Harnoncourt, and under the stage direction of the controversial Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

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The productions were turned into TV films by Ponnelle, using the cast and sets, but often placing the cameras right on stage to capture unusual angles. The dubbing is generally fine, though now and then lip-syncing is off, and the singers do not match the mood heard on the prerecorded sound track.

It is these three operas making up the Monteverdi cycle that the PBS network will be showing on three successive Monday evenings starting June 7. The cycle begins with, in the PBS titling, Orpheus (June 7). Then it's The Return of Ulysses (June 14) and The Coronation of Poppea (June 21).

They are handsome films all. Ponnelle uses the same device for each--a realization of the opera which is set in the Baroque period in which it was written, rather than in the epoch of the story itself. It makes for a striking effect--especially since designer Ponnelle is in many ways more arresting than director Ponnelle. He tries as well to wrestle with the notions of what was going on in Monteverdi's time politically and socially which would have had an influence on the composer and the librettist.

Ponnelle positions his singers in such a way that the viewer is virtually pulled into the action with the novelty of the angle, the compellingly visual nature of his direction. He is not beyond forcing an interpretation on straightforward events--some of the Nero-Poppea scenes become scenes in Nero's mind, adding a haunting quality to the music; the three suitors for the ever-faithful Penelope's hand are portrayed as excessively foppish and foolish, marring the effect of their violent demises.

Nonetheless, all three productions blazon forth with a vitality, a vigor, and a poetry that make one really marvel at the sheer genius and variety of Monteverdi's vision. All three works are masterpieces, superb listening-watching experiences (particularly if the speakers of a stereo are placed on either side of the TV set for the stereo simulcast). Seeing them in chronological order allows the viewer to follow Monteverdi's evolution as a composer.

And Harnoncourt and his superb band of musicians suffuse the music with all the drama and beauty one could ask for. He and Ponnelle work as a team - and we see Harnoncourt and the players quite often in these films. ''Orpheus'' tells a simple tale expressively. ''Ulysses'' takes characters and develops them more thoroughly than in ''Orpheus.''

But it is ''Poppea'' that finds Monteverdi at the peak of his form. Here the characters breathe with real emotions, passions, cruelties, selfishnesses. Ponnelle allows us to see them clearly. Even with the cuts--ranging from a few lines to entire scenes--the richness of the Monteverdi panoply unfolds.

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What is excised in this version is the real sense of the conflicts and irrational behavior among the gods, who are forever intruding on the story to protect this or ruin that person. But it is a small price to pay.

''Poppea'' was the first of the cycle to be taped, and was seen a few seasons back. The stylistic amenities are considerably refined in ''Orpheus'' and ''Ulysses''--strikingly so in ''Ulysses.''

In all the productions, we learn to care for the characters; and the unfoldment of plot, as carried forth on Monteverdi's uncannily expressive musical line, has the tensions of a good cliffhanger. The casts are uniformly excellent, indicative of the high-caliber talent to be found in the European houses. The subtitles are clear, to the point. The introductions by Derek Jacobi are succinct, informative, amusing.

It is PBS at its finest - using a Unitel (Munich) product and packaging it handsomely for the American audience.

''Great Performances'' has given us a bold array of unusual, memorable TV cultural events. This Monteverdi cycle is yet another.

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