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FESTVAL: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTS : A Sight at the Opera : Once, opera was a singer's art. Now we are in the era of the stage director.

August 16, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic.

Once upon a time, opera was primarily a singer's art. The aficionado didn't care all that much about who happened to be waving the stick, or who was directing traffic. The opera fanatic listened first, and he listened primarily to the sounds emanating from the stage. He looked last, and then without much discernment. Intermission talk revolved around Caruso's "Pagliacci," Ponselle's "Norma," Melchior's "Tristan". . . .

Then, as tastes began to change and vocal standards began to decline, we entered the age of the conductor. It didn't always matter quite so much who was bellowing the climactic high C or crooning the mezza-voce serenade. Attention had to be paid to the egomaniacal auteur who wielded control in the pit. He wasn't merely an enlightened accompanist. He was a musical mastermind.

The big shifts probably began with Gustav Mahler at the helm of the Staats- oper in Vienna and with Arturo Toscanini at La Scala in Milan. Eventually, the groupies of the lyric muse had to talk about Karajan's "Don Giovanni," Solti's "Ring," Bernstein's "Rosenkavalier," Giulini's "Falstaff," Carlos Kleiber's "Otello" . . . .

Now, as tastes are changing and the standards of singing and conducting may be declining, we have entered the age of the stage director. Drama, for better or worse, is having its day.

On a bad day, one doesn't even have to listen. One can read supertitles and abandon the senses to theatrical wizards.

The stage director has become the central, glamorous operatic tyrant. His job is complex. It no longer is enough for him to follow the score and the libretto, to respect the composer's instructions and to let the music, as it were, do the walking. The current clarion call is to interpret, or, better yet, to re -interpret.

The international in-crowd of the moment talks about Zeffirelli's "Turandot," Kupfer's "Fliegende Hollaender," Sellar's "Cosi fan Tutte," Wieland Wagner's or Chereau's or Rochaix's or Friedrich's "Ring". . . .

And so it may go at the Los Angeles Festival. The operatic schedule heralds Puccini's "La Boheme" as staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Prokofiev's "Fiery Angel" as staged by Andrei Serban, and Rossini's "Cenerentola" as staged by Frank Corsaro.

The Ponnelle "Boheme," familiar from its San Francisco incarnation in 1978, takes no drastic liberties with the original. It does, however, banish some tired character-cliches and, as it vividly evokes an impoverished verismo Paris of 1830, it scrapes away many a meaningless barnacle of tradition.

One doesn't know what to expect of "The Fiery Angel," but with Serban in charge it won't be dull. He, you may recall, is the Romanian avant-gardist who once shocked Juilliard with a blood-guts-and-nudity "Traviata." He also is the relatively noncontroversial director who staged the exotic, stylized, anti- kitsch "Turandot" that introduced the Royal Opera of London to our Olympic Arts Festival.

In the distant 1960s, Corsaro's productions at the New York City Opera seemed to mark him as a violent enfant terrible . Today, the same productions seem only mildly gimmicky, and subsequent efforts by the same man of the theater haven't even been provocative. One trusts he will exercise comic restraint when he turns his fertile imagination loose on the Cinderella story as filtered through romantic Italian sensibilities.

Many observers regard the rise of the operatic stage director as a trend that is at least potentially healthy. Of course there are aberrations, exaggerations, distortions, excesses and indulgences to be regretted. Some theatrical autocrats have instigated change for its own sour sake. There are nights at the opera when the cognoscenti have trouble recognizing the source. There also are nights, however, when opera actually makes sense as musical theater.

What seemed perfectly acceptable in 1940 may look perfectly preposterous in the cool light of 1987. We have come a long and painful way from the silly caricature of the concert in costume. At least we would like to think we have.

It must be acknowledged that temporal observations in the history of opera production invite dangerous generalizations and oversimplifications. Trends are never crystal clear. Periods overlap. A chic chapeau in one country is an old hat in another.

For many practical purposes, however, it can be argued that the revolution in operatic drama began in Germany, right after World War II. Germany has always tended to be more adventurous than other operatic countries. Thanks to generous state and government subsidies and a strong public-education program in the arts, the country always could afford intellectual experiments in the opera house.

In the late 1940s, however, there was little money for the arts. Many theaters had been destroyed. Some that survived had no sets or costumes.

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