The centerpiece of the Metropolitan Opera's fall season was the revival of Bellini's ``I Puritani'' to celebrate Joan Sutherland's 25th anniversary with the company. The season's first gala benefit kicked off the run, and most performances were sold out long before the first night. But other bright moments lit up this part of the season as well: Anna Tomowa-Sintow's stylish Marschallin in Richard Strauss's ``Der Rosenkavalier'' and Alfredo Kraus's elegant Rom'eo in the Gounod telling of the Shakespearean legend, ``Rom'eo et Juliette.''
The Bellini opera was mounted for Miss Sutherland in '76, and has not been seen since. Around her then was a stunning lineup - Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris. It was a pretty production, and made for the sort of evening that was stamped ``uniquely Met.'' A decade later, Sutherland and Mr. Milnes are still singing their respective roles; Mr. Pavarotti is not. So Salvatore Fisichella was imported to perform the treacherously high-lying role of Arturo. Mr. Morris was replaced by Samuel Ramey in his first, long overdue appearance since his debut several seasons ago.
The Ming Cho Lee set still looks pretty, though it has lost the pastel hues in the lighting that once gave it a lovely storybook quality. Perhaps it was because the '76 run had been the stuff of legends, that I could not shake the feeling that Sutherland should not have been celebrated with this revival of one of her exceptional triumphs. The top notes are still securely there, the ability to run up and down a scale still impressive, but the house-filling opulence of the tone is hers to command only intermittently these days. Nevertheless, the performance offered plenty of magic, and it always is a treat to hear Sutherland ``live.''
Unfortunately, what was going on around her at the second performance was not up to her level of excellence. Milnes capped an otherwise precarious performance of Riccardo with a ringing ``A-flat'' at the end of the second act; Fisichella's voice encompassed the high notes, but he is a dull singer, and tends to let the vocal line sag in pitch. Ramey's distinctive bass-baritone did not seem to come into its own in the role of Giorgio until the final duet with Milnes.
Richard Bonynge conducted with his usual loving attention to the singers and an all-pervasive sense that this is some of the most beautiful and supremely singable music ever written, and so we believed all evening long. The ``Puritani'' radio broadcast with Rockwell Blake in place of Mr. Fisichella will air Dec. 13 (check local listings).
The ``Rosenkavalier'' brought Miss Tomowa-Sintow's regal Marschallin back to this stage after too long an absence. This is not a role that allows for merely good singing. That special blend of textual awareness, highly detailed musicianship, and the ability to communicate an unspoken subtext are all Tomowa-Sintow's to command. In matters of demeanor, bearing, and histrionic insight, she is among the best Marschallins of the day, and at the performance I attended, the voice sounded especially opulent and beguiling.
Barbara Hendricks's Sophie - her debut role - began as a shy, fragile thing, with a touch of the gauche, and grew to a poised, young girl increasingly sure of what she wants out of life. The smallish voice has a gossamer beauty that proved most appealing in this music. Her Rosenkavalier (the trouser role of Octavian) was sung erratically, but magnificently acted by Brigitte Fassbaender, leaving no doubt whatsover why Europe has considered her the best Octavian of the past 15 years.
How discouraging then, that the remaining contributions were so routine, from the boorish, badly sung Ochs of Romano Nieders to the graceless, unevocative conducting of Jeffrey Tate. (Incidentally, in the Feb. 21 broadcast of ``Rosenkavalier,'' the Marschallin will be sung by Swedish soprano Elisabeth S"oderstr"om, in her farewell to the company.)
``Rom'eo'' was made memorable by Kraus's debonair, suave hero. He remains a peerless stylist, and his long career has served as proof that one must be true to one's vocal roots, know what repertoire to sing, and learn everything there is to learn about one's voice. Nearing 60, he sings with a freshness and command no longer available to many colleagues half his age, as radio listeners will be able to hear this Saturday afternoon. He held the stage as Rom'eo with rakish dash and offered his customary object lesson in the the joys of the tenor art.
His Juliette was newcomer Cecilia Gasdia, one of the hot new sensations from Europe. At the Met, she showed herself to be a surprisingly imperfect vocalist and not a very inventive stage performer. She could not negotiate Gounod's coloratura with grace; when she put any pressure on the voice, what little quality there was vanished.
At a later performance, Diana Soviero revealed far more poise, grace, and confidence, and sang the role with gusto, even if this once gorgeous instrument is now showing signs of incipient problems. She seemed to take in all the implied grandeur of the Met surroundings and created before our eyes a beguiling, vulnerable, yet sure heroine.
Apart from Allan Glassman's all-but-unlistenable Tybalt, the supporting cast was undistinguished. In the pit, conductor Pl'acido Domingo may not have given us authentic Gounod, but it was opera conducting on a level better than the Thomas Fultons, Nello Santis, Garcia Navarros, and Tates, that have become Met norm when James Levine is not on the podium.