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The Met: lustrous high points, frustrating lows

In the past few weeks, the Metropolitan Opera has offered two evenings of the sort of vocal and musical quality this house used to be able to muster on quite a consistent basis. Chronologically, the first evening was the revival of the complete three-act version of Alban Berg's ``Lulu''; a week later, Wagner's ``Parsifal'' returned to the repertoire after a season's absence. Both works were conducted by music director James Levine.

The ``Parsifal,'' in particular, proved the point that great performances occur only when great casts are assembled. This one was as lustrous as the Met has offered in many a year in any opera -- Leonie Rysanek singing her first Met Kundry, Jon Vickers in the title role, Kurt Moll as Gurnemanz, and Simon Estes as Amfortas. Mr. Levine, on the podium, conducts the work regularly in Bayreuth. His first act was so slow as to stop time altogether, as if stasis somehow equaled reverence or inspiration. The second and third acts were more textured, more alert to the drama onstage. Still, things did not come too easily, and, curiously, this sense of struggle added an extra dimension to the performance.

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Mr. Estes sings his role wonderfully well, even if he never gives much of a sense of what it is he is singing about. Mr. Moll, possessor of one of the richest bass voices, brings Gurnemanz -- potentially opera's most voluble bore -- thrillingly to life with that rare combination of memorable singing, inflection, and presence. Mr. Vickers is no stranger to the title role at the Met. But he still manages to bring a fresh blend of simpleton and spiritual visionary to the part. And the voice still rings out in true, thrillingly Heldentenor fashion.

Kundry, usually assigned to mezzos, is a killer part vocally, rising to soprano heights and contralto depths. It is also brutal histrionically, for this character must be at once hag and siren, cruel and compassionate, vengeful and vulnerable. One has to sense -- and so rarely does -- the Wagnerian woman damned to eternal suffering for having laughed at the foot of the cross. Miss Rysanek, a consummate actress, brings all these qualities to her astonishingly multifaceted performance. And while not in optimum voice at the first performance, she still sang a compellingly nuanced Kundry, the likes of which the Met walls have resounded with in too few seasons.

The Nathaniel Merrill-directed, Robert O'Hearn-designed production has lost all sense of meaning, and it is now so dreadfully lighted that any hint of illusion is gone. ``Parisfal'' will be broadcast this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings) on the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera Radio Network. `Lulu'

How fitting that in this Berg centennial year, the Met should put on such a fine performance of ``Lulu'' in a production that, at its best, does full justice to Berg's mood and symbolism.

In the title role, Julia Migenes-Johnson proves endlessly fascinating. She views Lulu as an excessively worldly femme fatale who knows full well what havoc she wreaks on all whose lives touch her own. The role holds no terrors for her (even though the singer who can negotiate all the vocal hurdles does not yet exist). A few shrill notes aside on opening night, she was able to communicate a good deal of emotion, passion, and mood.

Franz Mazura is an incomparable Dr.Sch"on, the man Lulu destroys, only to ``come back'' as Jack the Ripper and destroy her. In presence, in the way he handles Berg's Sprechgesang (literally, speak-sing), he has no equal today. Evelyn Lear, herself a legendary Lulu, reassumes the role of Countess Geschwitz, capturing the mysterious, long-suffering aura of this enigmatic character. Kenneth Riegel continues to make Alwa's music sound lyrical, tender, and impassioned. Most of the secondary casting was strong, except for Edward Sooter, who was not up to the pivotal role of the Painter.

At the first performance, Mr. Levine seemed a bit too preoccupied with keeping the action moving forward, but one could hear just how effectively he would respond to the mood shifts and the dramatic import of the score when he was more relaxed -- an accomplished reading by any standards. `Rigoletto' and `Porgy'

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The frustrating side of the Met intruded on the final weeks as it has intruded -- even dominated -- the entire season. In the ``Porgy and Bess'' production, which has settled into something rather low-key and routine by the 15th performance, Roberta Alexander took over the role of Bess. Vocally, she would have made an ideal Clara (the ``Summertime'' girl). As Bess, she consistently forced her top notes and lacked the dynamic stage presence this role demands if it is to communicate to so large a house.

Other cast changes included Veronica Tyler's Serena (impressive in the high-lying passages and vivid of presence), David Arnold's strongly sung Jake, and Marvis Martin's competent Clara. In the pit William Vendice demonstrated anew his seasoned professionalism and his acute attention to singers' needs while sustaining the long arch of each act of a score that can sound too episodic and piecemeal under a weaker baton.

In the penultimate week of the season, veteran Italian baritone Aldo Protti debuted as Rigoletto. The voice was never a major instrument, but it still contains a resonant ring in the upper notes. His performance, however, sounds just as mechanical and ill-tuned as it did on his complete recording from the early '50s, when he was in his prime.

Roberta Peters has been singing Gilda for more than 30 years now. The voice has long lacked the suppleness, strength, and range for the role, but she goes forth pluckily, even if ill-advisedly. Dano Raffanti, as the Duke, offered some ringing phrases only in the final act. In the pit, Nello Santi's barely routine approach to the score seemed to match the mechanical nature of things on stage. Is this really the best the Met can offer, since by definition the Met should be offering the best singing available. Is this really it?

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