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Penderecki establishes operatic mastery. Challenging `Black Mask' staged by Santa Fe Opera

THERE is no denying that Krzysztof Penderecki's ``The Black Mask,'' having its United States premi`ere performances under New Mexico's stunning night skies, is an electrifying theatrical construct. The composer is in the fullest control of every musical idea in the 100-minute score, magnificently weaving a grim tapestry of sound. The undercurrent of impending grisly catastrophe is sustained right to the cataclysmic finale. The colors and rich timbres of his orchestration are Penderecki at his very peak. His vocal writing shows no mercy for the singers, and it generally makes intelligibility, particularly in English, well nigh impossible. But the voices are all compelling counterpoints to the orchestra.

Musically, Penderecki has passed from the highly atonal, graphic style of ``The Devils of Loudon'' (given its US premi`ere by this company 19 years ago) to an idiom that weds his old style to tonality and a newfound musical romanticism. So assured is his hand in ``The Black Mask'' that there is no reason to doubt that opera has found an important and skilled convert.

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Unfortunately, the opera has libretto problems. It is the joint creation of the composer and German director Harry Kupfer (who also directed the world premi`ere Salzburg production in 1986) and is based on the Gerhart Hauptmann play of the same title. They have fashioned a dramatically shallow but structurally shrewd theatrical framework of prose ``hooks'' on which Penderecki hangs his riveting score.

The action, which owes a debt to Edgar Allan Poe's ``Mask of the Red Death,'' occurs in the course of an afternoon in 1662. Silvanus Schuller, the mayor of a remote Silesian village, has invited various friends and local luminaries - representing every aspect of the current secular and lay society - to a deadly afternoon meal. The Thirty Years' War is just over; the ``black death'' still threatens the country.

All have been tainted by slave-merchant money, beginning with Schuller's incipiently insane wife, Benigna, who was the wealthy slave-trader Van Gelder's widow. Her mulatto ``niece'' is, in fact, her daughter by the slave Johnson, who has returned in a vengeful visitation to wreak his revenge on all his oppressors: Benigna is driven fatally mad; Silvanus shoots himself; his guests drop dead, presumably as much from their own evils as from the plague.

The production tries to suggest a contemporary relevance with pictures of starving African children (Biafra? Ethiopia?) sharing the stage with John Conklin's handsome 16th-century mayoral mansion. Yet one leaves the theater impressed mostly by Penderecki's compositional skill. (I won't soon forget the use of the off-stage carillon.) And just as impressive is Alfred Kirchner's compelling direction.

But strangely it is like a nouvelle cuisine dinner - stunning to look at, but unsatisfying once eaten.

Mr. Kirchner coaxes excellent performances from most of his 14 principals and sees to it that the action never flags. The most demanding part is Benigna, and Beverly Morgan handles it with astonishing effectiveness - singing the vocally ungracious music with ease and consistent tonal beauty, which is an extraordinary accomplishment. Next in line for honors is Timothy Nolan as Perl, a performer remarkable for his presence and diction in a pivotal role.

Others of note in the large cast included Ragnar Ulfung, Judith Christin, and James Ramlet. Tenor Dennis Bailey was not up to Schuller's music, though he created an affecting character. And Marius Rintzler was badly miscast in the crucial role of Count H"utenw"achter.

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The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra performed superbly under the assured baton of George Manahan, who made the orchestra sound comfortable and relaxed with the wickedly difficult new work.

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