A Rarity From Massenet's Last Days

Five years ago, Opera Manhattan was formed to present staged productions of neglected operas in various smaller theaters around town. Its other driving goal was to raise money for AIDS research and care. In both areas the company has made notable contributions to the city.

On Wednesday night, Opera Manhattan took a big step in a new direction, obtaining Alice Tully Hall for a concert performance of Massenet's little-known ''Cleopatre,'' his last completed opera. It was a major undertaking for this small nonprofit organization, involving an orchestra of 44, a chorus of 28 and a large cast. Two of the principals had to bow out because of illness, including the esteemed American mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, who was to have sung the title role. But the performance went on undaunted.

Massenet, a major figure of French Romantic opera, had a lyrical gift, a savvy sense of dramatic pacing and an ear for beguiling harmony. But with the exception of ''Manon,'' his masterpiece, the mawkishness and cheap exoticism of the operas seem increasingly dated.

''Cleopatre'' is a case in point. There are wonderful touches in the score. As the opera opens in the camp of the conquering Roman general, Marc-Antoine, stirring march-like music evokes the scene in clipped rhythms and bustling brass fanfares. Much of the dialogue is delivered in Massenet's subdued arioso style. Some of the ensemble scenes are deftly handled.

But Massenet was nearly 70 and dying when he composed this score, and there is a sense about it of an old pro on automatic pilot, trying to keep alive a fading tradition. (That same year, Stravinsky was also in Paris composing his shocker of a ballet, ''The Rite of Spring.'')

In particular, the music for ''Cleopatre'' never fleshes out the character depicted in Louis Payen's libretto. This is not just your standard sultry Egyptian queen, but a brazen temptress who takes a handsome slave for a lover to revenge Marc-Antoine's temporary desertion, and who amuses herself in a tavern disguised as a rich man in the market for a male prostitute.

Yet in providing music for this audacious character, Massenet is seldom willing to disrupt the agreeable flow of dusky, expansive melody. The Cleopatre, Marion Capriotti, has a rich-toned mezzo-soprano voice that filled the hall without forcing; and her phrasing was shapely. But indistinct diction and lax rhythm suggested that she was not entirely comfortable.

The baritone Hector Vasquez, as Marc-Antoine, took some time to get over the wobblies. But once his voice settled in, his singing was robust and vibrant. The tenor Michael Hendrick, the substitute Spakos, the slave, has a bright voice, but also seemed somewhat shaky. Of the leads, the most solid was the Octavie of the soprano Tamara Wright Acosta. Her work lacked subtlety, but her singing was clarion-toned and ardent.

Under the conductor Gabriel Guimaraes, the orchestra playing was stylistically assured, if technically spotty. Mark Streshinsky was credited as stage director, but this was essentially a concert performance, with the singers in formal wear performing before music stands.

Anthony TommasiniThe New York Times