One would hardly think of Carnegie Hall as an important opera house, but last Sunday it inaugurated its Gala Rossini Opera Festival with a vibrant performance of that composer's little-known ''La Donna del Lago'' (''The Lady of the Lake''). The performance generated more excitement than most evenings at the Met in recent memory.
The obvious reason for the ''festival'' is singer Marilyn Horne, but the primary benefit to concertgoers is exposure to three operas that neither of this city's houses seems remotely interested in presenting. In addition to the opera in question, ''Semiramide'' and ''Tancredi'' will be heard during the season.
Rossini has never been taken very seriously in the United States, particularly in New York. The Met seems to feel his ''L'Italiana in Algeri'' should be a rarity. ''L'Asseido di Corinto'' was done as a vehicle for Beverly Sills' debut and has not been heard since. The City Opera has at least given ''Il Turco in Italia'' and ''Le Comte Ory'' a chance.
So Carnegie Hall is offering a service to music lovers. And it is offering Miss Horne, one of our most important singers, a showcase she has been consistently denied at the Met. Agnes Balsta had been originally announced but withdrew, so Frederica von Stade replaced her. Thus, the New York principal cast was that of the US premiere production last season at the Houston Grand Opera - Misses Horne and von Stade, Rockwell Blake, and Dano Raffanti.
The opera is a splendid showcase for five grand singers. It treats the Sir Walter Scott story of the same (English) title in an opera seria format - a string of imposing arias tied together with action-forwarding recitatives. The arias range from good to glorious, with some stunning ensembles, duets, and trios along the way.
She was the star of the evening - a magnificent voice wedded to a superlative technique and a thrilling sense of how to communicate in multifac-eted and thrilling form.