When well-known operas take on a new look
New productions refresh an opera company. They either replace stagings of war horses that have worn out (or were not very good in the first place), or they serve to introduce a new work.
At the New York City Opera, two new productions were unveiled recently - Verdi's ''La Traviata'' and Weber's ''Der Freischutz.'' The company's old ''Traviata'' setting was said to have been beyond salvation physically. As for ''Freischutz,'' it is, at best, a novelty in New York.
When a company replaces an old production with a new one, one hopes the replacement will be at least an improvement. In the case of ''Traviata,'' the scuttled staging was by Frank Corsaro, and a marvelous one it was, abounding with vital ideas. It offered a ''Traviata'' true to the spirit of Verdi, one that did not necesarily depend on great singing for ultimate success. The characters were so real, the scenes and action so convincing (as long as the singers acted well), the production almost sold itself.
What has replaced that interpretation is a dourly conventional, listlessly literal-minded affair by Lou Galtiero. He has nothing new to say about ''Traviata,'' which of itself is no bad thing. Unfortunately, he does nothing to bring the opera to life. Instead, he creates a drab series of stock characterizations and gestures, manages to mistime most of the crucial entrances and exits, and even goes so far as to keep ''Traviata'' a four-act opera when most companies have gone back to the three-act format Verdi wrote.
Zack Brown's sets are also quite conventional, though they speak of no specific locale. The second act is set in a forest garden that could be in upstate New York, the third act a garishly red room that clashes with Violetta's dress when she finally makes her entrance. The costumes are attractive enough, the lighting quite good (except for that horrendous red glow for Act 3).
In the case of ''Freischutz,'' there is less to go on. Though it is considered the first true German opera and is all but a national anthem, it has no tradition in this country. The Met tried it in 1971. It logged 9 performances and was never brought back. At least the City has tried to do it right. A new translation by Andrew Porter was commissioned and used. John Copley was brought over from England to direct, and the gifted Carl Toms designed the sets.
But there was no magic, no real poetry. Porter's translation proved straightforward, well rhymed, and rarely awkward. As with everything about the production, it is earnest from beginning to end. The Toms scenery is beautiful throughout.
The Copley staging has a certain fluidity and understated appeal until the notorious ''Wolf Glen'' scene. It is here that Caspar, a soldier in cahoots with the devil, forges seven magic bullets for Max to use at the ''trial shot'' the next day. Spooks fly, demons cry, the forces of evil create a witches' sabbath, a horror fest, and a livid nightmare all in one.
When magic bullets are fired in the opera, the stage is lit with stroboscope, and everything slows down to a crawl. On opening night a real bird flew across the stage, ''shot down'' (through stage effects), and then fluttered confusedly about behind the backdrop until someone shut off the rear lights. In the ''Wolf Glen,'' steam jets that should have gone off on cue did not; doves that should have flown away got caught on the front scrim, amplification that should have worked didn't. Directors reliant on mechanical trappings should be sure they can be executed properly each and every time, otherwise titters rather than terror ensues.
Musically and vocally, there were real problems with both evenings. Diana Soviero was not up to her assignment as Violetta Valery, the heroine of ''Traviata.'' She has done fine work at the City Opera in the past but seemed overparted here - phrasing erratically, straining, and - most alarming - addressing all her high notes to her left shoulder.
The ''Freischutz'' had its share of casting problems as well. Ellen Shade, for instance, looked her role but was vocally at odds with Agathe - unable gracefully to harness her large but somewhat sprawling voice, especially in the last act.
The ''Freischutz'' is an honorable outing without much excitement, though a change of cast could help that aspect of the evening. Of the ''Traviata,'' one can only regret the money spent here was not used restoring what was a model City Opera production that still, at its most recent revival, had vitality, compelling interest, and showed off a good acting cast to fine advantage.