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New season, old troubles at the Met Opera

The first four productions of the new Metropolitan Opera season were not exactly cause for celebration. They highlighted ongoing problems with casting, conducting, and production values. Opening night used to be devoted to something special. This year, we got another performance of Verdi's ``Otello,'' with Pl'acido Domingo in the title role for the third time at the Met. Kiri Te Kanawa was Desdemona for the second time in her Met career. Silvano Carroli was the new Iago, replacing the previously announced Renato Bruson.

Why such an unimaginative casting for ``Otello''? Domingo's Moor has already opened one season, and his regular-guy approach to this heroic role diminishes Verdi's music. Miss Te Kanawa may be the queen of crossover, but she proved dramatically inert as Desdemona. Carroli's Iago blustered a good deal and was a rather raw fellow throughout the evening. At least Hans Sotin as Lodovico was a lavish bonus.

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A far more appropriate all-star event was the revival of Strauss's ``Ariadne auf Naxos.'' Jessye Norman sang the title role magnificently; James King returned yet again to offer his masterly Baachus; Tatiana Troyanos offered her highly acclaimed, if now vocally edgy, Composer; Kathleen Battle assayed her first Met try as Zerbinetta; and Hermann Prey returned to the house as the Music Master after too long an absence.

Fortunately, the ``Ariadne'' offered pages and pages of glorious singing - real goose-flesh time, thanks to its above-mentioned principals. And having Mr. Prey on hand was Met-style luxury indeed. But Miss Battle's Zerbinetta was the focal point of interest. She was graceful, sweet of tone, and, at the third performance, unexpectedly agile of voice.

Massenet's ``Manon'' and Donizetti's ``L'elisir d'amore'' were so peculiarly cast that one simply had to ask why the house bothered to put the works on in the first place. The revival of last season's failed production of ``Manon'' found Catherine Malfitano back for her inadequately sung Manon; the Met brought in for a debut the rough, unsteady bass Richard van Allan as the Count des Grieux. ``L'elisir d'amore'' offered a cast of very low luster - the aging Carlo Bergonzi notwithstanding.

In ``Manon,'' Vinson Cole, as des Grieux, used his voice with taste and skill, spinning out long, hushed phrases with Gallic grace. Gino Quilico, as Lescaut, cut a rakish figure and sang with a bright, appealing baritone.

The third ``Elisir'' of the season found Mr. Bergonzi in unexpectedly magnificent voice, giving yet another of his justly celebrated lessons in Italianate style. His Adina was newcomer Sona Ghazarian, a house soubrette in Vienna, whose soprano has its lovely patches, as well as its hooty ones. Unfortunately, her acting was overwrought. Brian Shexnayder was dull as Belcore, though he was even and firm of voice - and what a beautiful voice it is.

I have never been as aware of the inequities of the Met's supporting cast as at these four performances. On the one had, there are voices of real potential. Gweneth Bean made an outstanding impression as Dryad in her debut role in ``Ariadne,'' and Stephen Dickson, the same opera's Harlekin, continues to grow vocally.

Those, however, who are destined to remain comprimario singers are not being watched and nurtured. For instance, baritone David Hamilton turned both Montano in ``Otello'' and de Bretigny in ``Manon'' into exhibitions of high school theatrics; Anthony Laciura was allowed to emote uncontrollably as Guillot in the same ``Manon''; apparently no one told Allan Glassman that jumping up and down in hysterical fashion was not a particularly funny way to perform the role of Scaramuccio in ``Ariadne.''

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In the pit, James Levine is in better, more spontaneous form this year than in seasons past. ``Otello'' had the grand moments we used to take for granted in his work, and the ``Ariadne'' had a rapturous sweep that he seemed never to be able to find on past occasions. The importation of Ralf Weikert to lead the ``Elisir'' proved wise: He kept the score bouncing along with a freshness and a vigor rarely heard in this opera.

The tendency to overproduce at the Met reached a nadir last season with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's overbearing ``Manon'' designs. For now, the Met is stuck with a cruel hoax of a concept that audiences familiar with those ``Carol Burnett Show'' parodies will recognize.

Franco Zeffirelli's ``Otello'' production still has glimmers of what once made it grand, even if it is beginning to look rather tired, especially under Gil Wechsler's harsh, unatmospheric lighting.

Ironically, there were two productions dating from the old house that served to remind one that more modest approaches can often have their effect: For even in the decrepitude that afflicts both the Robert O'Hearn ``Elisir'' and the Oliver Messel ``Ariadne'' sets, there is a tangible charm and atmosphere.

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