The annual spring tour by the Metropolitan Opera is the one chance the company has - apart from the PBS ''Live at the Met'' series - to stake its claim as the nation'sm opera company.
In the days when touring was still a relatively affordable proposition, and when the Met had the sort of power to demand that its leading singers tour, all the top stars would ''hit the road.''
It was only when the European festivals became so popular after the World War II that the most important singers became harder to count on. Nowadays, a Placido Domingo would rather spend his time hopping from festival to festival rather than garner the goodwill of American audiences by appearing with the Met tour. (It must be said, though, that Luciano Pavarotti has not been a stranger to the tour in recent years.)
Last season, and again this year, Renata Scotto has been the big draw. Sherrill Milnes has always been generous with his tour time. And this season the rising young star Neil Shicoff is being heard in two roles. This is also the ''on year'' for James Levine's participation, and he is conducting four productions this time around.
The Met has a lot to atone for after last year: Casting was about as bad as it had ever been, attendance was off in many cities, and reviews were generally terrible. This year, on the eve of the centennial season, the seven productions and casts seem stronger than in recent memory.
I caught up with three productions on the first stop of the tour, the Opera House in the Kennedy Center in Washington. I saw Strauss's ''Der Rosenkavalier, '' Cilea's ''Adriana LeCouvreur,'' and Verdi's ''La Forza del Destino.'' Nothing slipped below a very honorable standard. (The remaining shows on tour include Verdi's ''Macbeth,'' (Scotto, Milnes; Levine), Puccini's ''La Boheme,'' (Teresa Zylis-Gara, Giuliano Ciannella; Levine), Mussorgsky's ''Boris Godunov,'' (Aage Haugland; James Conlon); and Donizetti's ''Lucia di Lammermoor'' (Ashley Putnam, Neil Shicoff; Michelangelo Veltri).
The Rosenkavalier received a far better performance in Washington than it did at the Met earlier in the season. The remarkable Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom returned to the company for the first time in 20 years to sing the Marschallin. Frederica von Stade was the Octavian and Kathleen Battle the Sophie. The cast clicked histrionically; a tremor of believability and naturalness erupted into an exceptionally well-acted ''Rosenkavalier.''
The Marschallin is one of opera's most interesting creations. She is a woman who renounces her love as the supreme proof of her love. Whereas most Marschallins resign themselves to having to renounce Octavian, Miss Soderstrom sees the renunciation as a great struggle, one that is just barely resolved in the final moments of the opera. She proceeds to unfold the essence of the struggle with consummate skill, richly detailing the role, and all the infinite shadings and subtleties in manner one had almost assumed was lost forever - a memorable performance from one of the finest artists of our day.
Miss von Stade's Octavian was a vision of youth and impetuousity, and the way she played off both Miss Soderstrom and Miss Battle lent an uncommon air of believability to that potentially incredible situation any trouser role tends to conjure up. Miss von Stade's voice thins out notoriously up top, so there were more than a few moments where the singing did not equal the acting, but even then, this is one of the finest performances I have seen this American singer give. Miss Battle was an impressive Sophie-in-the-making (she was singing the role for the first time on tour) - a radiant voice with a quicksilver top, an acting ability that shows us the feistiness under the apparent gossamer, and ever-improving German (but which still has a long way to go).
Aage Haugland was the rambunctious Ochs, Morley Meredith the self-satisfied Faninal. James Levine found a buoyancy, a lilt, a cohesiveness in his reading that was missing in New York. But then again, he always responds favorably to improvements in casts, offering his best work when the singers are particularly accomplished.
Adriana received a sturdy performance. Michelangelo Veltri knows exactly how the hokey score has to be helped along to sustain interest; the orchestra seemed to respond to his cajoling. Teresa Zylis-Gara is not the most exciting actress imaginable, but she scored all the necessary dramatic points and sang correctly, often beautifully. Neil Shicoff sings the role of Maurizio spectacularly well in the grand old Italian style. How refreshing to find a young American who does his stylistic homework, and knows what great tenor singing is all about. Bianca Berini animated the proceedings with her handsome, forthrightly villainous Princess, and Sesto Bruscantini projected the role of the aging Michonnet straight from the heart. The new Raf Vallone staging is considerably poorer than even this threadbare opera deserves, and the intermissions are endless because of the massiveness of the sets.
Forza offered Leona Mitchell as Leonore, as was the case in New York last fall. She sang more confidently, but with the same lack of textual comprehension: Her Italian emerged as a string of nonsense syllables, because she clearly does not know the language. This was alarmingly the case with her ''Madama Butterfly'' in the closing weeks of the New York season. There she dropped most of her consonants and made terrible mistakes in diction and memorization. The voice is gorgeous. Nonetheless, she is going to have to do something about her languages if she is to be taken seriously.
Ermano Mauro sang a handsome Alvaro, Peter Glossop an unacceptable Carlo, and James Morris a secure Guardiano. The Met orchestra and chorus performed memorably for maestro Levine.
The Opera House at the Kennedy Center is an ideal size - about 2,600 - and is blessed with the finest acoustics of any major opera house in the United States. No one has to force to be heard even over the full Met orchestra, and no one in the theater is preposterously far from the stage. Some of the barns on the Met tour offer nothing remotely resembling an operatic experience, even when a good cast is performing. But the tour goes on. Next season, Boston will be replaced with Toronto, which is but the beginning of what promises to be a major rethinking of the tour in general at the beginning of the company's second century of existence.
The Met will be in Detroit through May 28, Cleveland May 30 to June 4, and Boston June 6 to 12.