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At the Met : Dark Clouds and Hard Times at the Met

January 17, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

NEW YORK — The new year at the Metropolitan Opera began under numerous dark clouds, within the house. Under the dismal circumstances, the blizzardous cold wave outside seemed only an incidental distraction.

The company apparently needs support so badly that it has officially renamed the main hall in honor of an exceptionally generous benefactor. Given this illustrious demonstration of what money can buy, New York may soon call the Brooklyn Bridge the Osbert Johnson Bridge, and--who knows?--the Empire State Building could become the Agatha Brill Armstrong Building.

Pick your monument and pay the tab. The prospects boggle.

Be that as it may, the repertory offered in the Sybil Harrington Auditorium was staggeringly stale. The scenery seemed more important than the singers. Bona-fide stars were in short supply. James Levine, the beleaguered artistic director, remained conspicuously absent from his own pit.

A spate of late cancellations--some of them related to the awkward combination of a relatively low pay scale and a chronically devalued dollar--caused cast-shuffling beyond the irrational norm.

The local press treated the blighted company with increasingly obvious, and increasingly justified, disdain. Oddly, however, the general public showed few signs of disapproval.

The inveterate operafanatics may have grumbled, and standing room, their habitual haunt, sometimes may have been sparsely populated. But the masses, easily pleased these days in the land of big, polished apples, carried on as if the mighty Met were offering business as usual.

There's the alarming rub: It probably was.

While shoddy provincial standards threatened to become an alarming norm, audiences continued blithely to fill the house--most of the time, at least--and to pay up to $95 for a ticket. Push-button bravo s resounded whenever the curtain rose on a pretty, glitzy, crowded stage picture. Cheers greeted even the flattest high note--so long as it was powerful--and ovations boomed whenever a hint of a cadence loomed on the sonic horizon.

The season's first performance of "Macbeth" revealed all the symptoms of disorder. The production was a wild critical flop when it was new in 1982, thanks primarily to the eccentric staging of Sir Peter Hall. The current version, overseen by Paul Mills, a house factotum, tones down most of those eccentricities yet remains a bizarre mixture of old-fashioned styles and unfocused impulses. Hall's name, not incidentally, has been removed from the program.

No one approached Verdi's early, uneven, quasi-masterpiece on Jan. 7 expecting dramatic revelations. John Bury's sets--flat, drab and inconsistent evocations of theatrical devices of the mid-19th Century--were still in use. At least one did not have to contemplate the samurai perversions recently imposed on the same opera at the Music Center. And at least, one reasoned, the Met would assemble a compensatory collection of fine singing actors.

One reasoned wrong.

Renato Bruson, Giulini's memorable Falstaff in Los Angeles, had been scheduled to sing Macbeth. He withdrew, presumably because of fiscal considerations.

Giuseppe Sinopoli, the flamboyant Italian maestro, had been scheduled to conduct. He withdrew, reportedly because he didn't want to work with a lesser baritone.

Eva Marton, the popular Hungarian diva, had been scheduled to interpret Lady Macbeth. She withdrew, supposedly because she didn't like the prospect of replacement collaborators when she was singing this difficult role for the first time in her career.

After some fancy international negotiation, the Met enlisted Frederick Burchinal of the New York City Opera for the title role. Elizabeth Connell, the Australian mezzo-turned-soprano, assumed the prima-donna duties. Kazimierz Kord agreed to fly over from Poland to take over the baton.

The result turned out to be a minor triumph of muted competence under stress. Things could have been worse. But, for once, the New Yorkers left a lot of seats empty.

Although Burchinal is neither a heroic singer nor an exciting one, he offered an intelligent, solid, essentially lyrical performance of the title role. He sustained a respectable routine.

Connell did strange things to the Italian text. Her dissimilar vocal devices fluctuated from white, itty-bitty, little-girl sounds to healthy mid-range outbursts to piercing fortissimo climaxes. She barely touched the crucial high D-flat at the end of the Sleepwalking Scene, a tone for which Verdi requested an eerie fil de voce . Nevertheless, she performed with temperament, authority and traces of pathos.

Kord may have missed the ultimate accents of operatic agony and ecstasy. He did, however, provide enough poise, enough expressive propulsion and dynamic clarity to remind us of what Placido Domingo had neglected when conducting the Los Angeles performances last month.

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