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(More Than) a Night at the Opera

The New York City and Metropolitan opera companies launch a host of season offerings with some positive, some poor, results

FERRUCCIO BUSONI'S "Doktor Faust" has been a cause cbre since the composer died in 1924, some 11 manuscript pages shy of completing what is now recognized as his masterpiece.

After its American concert premiere in 1964, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, we have had to wait until now for a staged production, and it is the New York City Opera we must thank - albeit in qualified fashion - for finally giving us Busoni's unusual opera.

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I say qualified because artistic director Christopher Keene has once again marshaled the forces of his company to deliver a musical triumph in a uniquely demanding work only to be seriously let down by his stage director - in this case, Frank Corsaro.

Busoni, who owned one of the great collections of Faust literature, turned to a combination of an old German puppet play and Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" rather than Goethe.

Busoni removed the Christian overtones, and made the alchemist and doctor a sorcerer in search of knowledge at whatever cost, even a pact with the devil. Only when nearing an accursed death would he admit his mistakes, but state that his "heir" would continue where he broke off, purified, as it were, of Faust's errors. Gretchen (a.k.a. Marguerite) never appears in Busoni's Faust opera (though her vengeful brother does). Rather, it is the Duchess of Parma who is ruined.

Busoni's musical muse was unique - a curious mixture of Italianate passion and Germanic sobriety, reflecting his own Italian-German heritage. The massive orchestra is used for music that is now cataclysmic, now gossamer, now Straussian in its richness, now Bachian in its leanness and formality. The effects can be astonishing - be it the Duchess of Parma's trancelike meditation on Faust, or the Doctor's own final nearly cosmic words before resigning himself to death.

Keene conjured sounds out of the New York City Opera Orchestra that its patrons have simply not heard in years - rich, empassioned playing from all involved. The cast performed commendably, with William Stone earning particular honors in the grueling title role, and Robert Brubaker revealed a tenor of exceptional potency and luster in the thankless role of the Soldier. Eva Zseller coped well with the excruciatingly high-lying part of the Duchess of Parma. The role of Mephistopheles is also treacherously high, and tenor Michael Rees Davis made a game attempt at making it sound meaningful.

As for the production, Mr. Corsaro revived his scrims and filmed projections approach that worked so well 20 years ago, and should have worked stunningly for a tale of magic and sorcery. Rather, it all seemed a tired patchwork quilt of gestures and gimmicks he used to better effect many years ago, without the insights that made the best of his older work so exciting. By ignoring most of Busoni's stage directions, he denied audiences a chance to judge the opera on its own terms as a work of theater. `Tales of Hoffmann'

At the Metropolitan Opera, opening night was devoted to a revival of the company's popular production of Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" ("The Tales of Hoffmann"), this time with a difference. Offenbach died four months before the premiere of his masterpiece. Had he lived, he would have seriously reworked the opera. Instead, others did it for him, to disastrous effect. This year, the Met is incorporating big chunks of original Offenbach from the Fritz Oeser critical edition.

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The story unfolds in a different order: The doll Olympia is now followed by the singer Antonia rather than the courtesan Giulietta. Also, the role of the Muse is restored: She comes to Hoffmann in the guise of his friend Nicklausse, so that he can be led back to his love of writing and away from his more earthy desires. The original version was also written with one singer assuming the roles of Hoffmann's various loves, rather than assigning them to four artists.

Placido Domingo repeated his stellar performance in the title role. Susanne Mentzer's Muse/ Niklausse was cheered for both the elegance of her phrasing and communicative passion of her performance.

Samuel Ramey offered his four villains to Met audiences for the first time, in a veritable histrionic and vocal tour de force. Carol Vaness was at her resplendent best as Giulietta - imposing, even regal of voice and presence. (And what an improvement the new set for this act is over its predecessor.) Her Antonia was not the usual impassioned scenery chewer (thank goodness!). Her droll Olympia had all the requisite facility in the big aria and exit waltz. Artistic director James Levine presided magnifice ntly. `Falstaff'

Verdi's "Falstaff" has been a Levine specialty since he first conducted the work at the Met in 1972. The interpretation has deepened over the years, and the orchestra playing this time around was indeed something remarkable. Unfortunately, the Franco Zeffirelli production is now far too broadly staged, and the lighting is often quite garish.

All the principals in this impressive cast were being heard in their roles for the first time at the Met. Paul Plishka's first-ever Sir John Falstaff was a richly textured characterization that stresses the Shakespearean clown elements at the expense of the knight-warrior, but the role fits him well.

Mirella Freni and Marilyn Horne were impressive in their respective roles of Alice Ford and Mistress Quickly. Barbara Bonney and Frank Lopardo made a convincing pair of lovers, Bruno Pola a strong Ford, and Susan Graham a standout Meg Page. A footnote in operatic history was added with the debut of tenor Piero de Palma, Europe's outstanding character tenor, as Dr. Caius. `Un Ballo in Maschera'

Levine turned the composer's "Un Ballo in Maschera" over to other conductors after the first season. Now it is in the highly capable hands of John Fiore who led a seasoned, effortlessly grand performance, a few erratic "ideas" that threw the pulse of some scenes awry. In the role of Gustav, Richard Leech overcame some rough singing and lackluster acting to demonstrate yet again why he is one of our very finest singing actors. Harolyn Blackwell repeated her perky and spirited Oscar. Aprile Millo, returnin g to Amelia after a season's lapse, found the upper reaches of the role troublesome in matters of pitch. Florence Quivar was a solid Ulrica and Leo Nucci a lackluster Anckarstrom. `Madama Butterfly'

The Met's "Madama Butterfly" production dates from 1958, and with less harsh lighting perhaps it would not look its age. Musically, however, the second performance of the season was first-rate, beginning with Julius Rudel's sumptuous, sensitive conducting - and how well the orchestra played for him. In the title role, Diana Soviero gave a performance that was far-ranging in detail, full of risk, yet not really sufficiently restrained or innocent for a fully rounded interpretation.

Michael Sylvester continues to prove himself an invaluable addition to the Met roster, and his Pinkerton was rousingly sung. Dwayne Croft, a recent graduate of the Met's Young Artist Development Program, scored a personal triumph as Sharpless: This is one of the most beautiful lyric baritones to be heard in many a year.

* New York City Opera: `Regina' Oct. 9, 18, 20, 24. `The Desert Song' Oct. 10, 13, 16. `Magic Flute' Oct. 8, 11, 17, 23, 27, 31. `Carmen' Oct. 7, 10, 17, 25, 30, 31, Nov. 4, 6, 7, 10. Metropolitan: `Falstaff' Oct. 6, 10, 14, 17, 20, 23. `Un Ballo in Maschera' Oct. 7, 10, 15. `Madama Butterfly' Oct. 9, 13, 17, 22, 29, Nov. 3, 7, 12. `Semiramide' Oct. 26, 30, Nov. 5, 9, 13. World premiere of Philip Glass's `The Voyage' Oct. 12, 16, 21, 24, 28, 31.

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