THE new Metropolitan Opera season, which opened with an ``A"ida'' production that will be telecast nationally during Christmas week, boasts several notable anniversaries, including James Levine's 20th with the company and the 50th of Texaco's Saturday matinee broadcasts - the longest corporate sponsorship in broadcast history. (A special radio program March 10 will celebrate the event; the regular broadcast season begins Dec. 2.) Mr. Levine's presence has been dominant from his first performances in the 1970-71 season. Since he has been in the chief musical chair (currently his title is artistic director), he has transformed the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into one of the great opera ensembles of the world. He has brought 20th-century works to the Met, as well as a brand-new Richard Wagner ``Ring'' cycle (to be telecast June 18-21, 1990).
Under his aegis, TV has become a partner with the Met (some of Levine's best work has been telecast around the world and released on laserdisc, via Pioneer Artists and now Deutsche Grammophon CD-Video). His tally of Met performances - in the house and on the road - was 1,190 before the season opened, a Met record.
Of course, he was on the podium for the ``A"ida'' at the end of September - opening nights should always be the responsibility of the top musical presence in the company. Opening week also belonged to so many of the North Americans who now dominate the opera scene: Aprile Millo, Dolora Zajick, and Sherrill Milnes in the ``A"ida'' (the cast for the PBS telecast of Dec. 27); the Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas making a rare Met appearance in all three roles of Puccini's ``Il Trittico,'' along with Florence Quivar, Vinson Cole, and Mignon Dunn (most of whom will be heard on the radio broadcast of Dec. 16); the entire ``Porgy and Bess'' cast.
Levine's musical contributions to the season's first productions were spottier than usual, yet his off-norm is more rewarding than most maestros' peaks. The three Puccini operas of the ``Trittico'' were vintage Levine - from the seething passions of ``Il Tabarro'', through the subsumed passions of ``Suor Angelica,'' to the uproarious comedic hijinks of ``Gianni Schicchi.'' ``A"ida'' does not really seem to interest him much, and his reading of ``Porgy'' has become rather too massively Wagnerian, particularly as an accompaniment to the slender-voiced, often inadequate cast.
Though the ``Porgy'' was a musical misfire, theater director Arvin Brown's restaging brought a vitality and freshness rarely found in Met revivals, even if the result did not bring the one-on-one aspects of the drama effectively to life.
As for casting, the first part of this season promised many good things, but, as so often happens at the Met, expectations were occasionally thwarted. For instance, on opening night neither Domingo nor Milnes were up to their previous standards in their roles. Miss Zajick has sung Amneris to superior effect in Chicago, but here was notable only for the astonishing manner in which she surmounted Verdi's vocal hurdles. Miss Millo, the honorable A"ida, applied a veneer of older operatic performance traditions on her portrayal, without even hinting at the character underneath it all.
Miss Stratas's assumption of the three divergant heroines of Puccini's tryptich was wildly received in most quarters. To this reviewer's taste, however, she succeeded in only the outer two works. Her Angelica was meaningful only if one could accept an approach that superimposed the singer's highly personal viewpoint of the heroine over the music - something this writer simply could not manage.
But the ``Trittico'' had much to admire, including Florence Quivar's formidable Princess-Aunt; Bruno Pola's vivacious, handsomely sung Schicchi; Mignon Dunn's riotous Zita; Juan Pons's effective Michele; and tenor Giorgio Merighi's robust Luigi. Elsewhere, one must note the debut of the resonant-voiced bass Paata Burchuladze as Ramfis in ``A"ida'' - at his best when not straining for impact.
The first part of the season also includes new productions of Verdi's ``La Traviata'' (Franco Zeffirelli directing, Carlos Kleiber conducting) and ``Rigoletto'' (with Leo Nuccin in the title role, Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke, and June Anderson debuting as Gilda), as well as revivals of Strauss's ``Die Frau Ohne Schatten,'' and Offenbach's ``The Tales of Hoffmann'' (with Neil Shicoff) among the highlights.