At first, it looks as though the "Gala of Stars 1986" will follow the familiar routines established through years of fund-raising for PBS: Emcee Beverly Sills and conductor James Levine will be among the first faces on camera tomorrow (approximately 8 p.m., Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television; simulcast on WETA-FM).
But this year the menu has been varied, and the scene has moved to another continent.
Sills is first shown riding a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Vienna -- scenically, a considerable improvement over New York, where these galas normally originate. After Sills installs herself in a box at the Staatsoper, the evening's entertainment brings out such performers as Francisco Araiza, Edita Gruberova, Gwyneth Jones, Elisabeth So derstro m, Leo Nucci, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Bernd Weikl, Leonie Rysanek and Alfredo Kraus.
This year's gala features performers who happened to be in Vienna when the show was taped (or could be lured there for the occasion), rather than those who happened to be in New York. The artistic quality of the evening does not suffer thereby.
Despite inevitable imperfections, this is one of the freshest and best shows in the seven-year history of the "Gala of Stars," and in a pitch for funds, Sills half-promises more of the same: "Maybe next year, we can go to London or Paris." The subtext of this pitch is probably that it is more cost-effective to do this kind of thing in Europe than in New York.
There are a number of Americans in the show besides Sills and Levine: Fernando Bujones, for example (dancing in a marvelously athletic pas de deux by Auber), and Kathleen Battle and Julia Migenes-Johnson among the singers. Again, the quality does not suffer; American performers in Vienna tend to be a classy group. Migenes-Johnson seems particularly at home in Vienna, belting out an energetic, idiomatic Czardas in the dazzling "Fledermaus" segment that ends the show.
The orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic, and its quality shows in the overtures to "The Magic Flute" and "The Flying Dutchman." If perfection is what you're looking for, the orchestra is the star of the evening. The singers are generally impressive, but this is a live, in-concert recording and even the best singer (Rysanek, for example, in "Suicidio" from "La Gioconda") can slip occasionally in such circumstances.
In spite of the overwhelmingly operatic emphasis of the evening, many music-lovers will find the most satisfying moments in the lieder occasionally slipped into the program. Hermann Prey takes "Ihr Bild" from Schubert's "Schwanengesang" at a perilously slow pace and makes it work, then launches into a highly dramatic "Erlko nig." Both have orchestral accompaniment, which may upset purists, although it is all very well done. Perhaps to maintain balance, Christa Ludwig is later accompanied by Levine at the piano in a superb performance of Mahler's "Rheinlegendchen" -- which could, of course, have had an orchestral accompaniment.
The program is enriched with quite a few relative rarities, such as the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's "Russalka" (beautifully sung by So derstro m) and "Ah, mes amis," from "Daughter of the Regiment," in a performance by Kraus that is almost a triumph of craftsmanship over declining vocal powers. But there are also good performances of such standard show stoppers as "Che gelida manina" and the "Laughing Song" from "Die Fledermaus."