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A welcome climate change at Lincoln Center

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Broadway and Times Square remain the soul of Gotham glitz and excitement, particularly during the holiday season when the world's attention zooms in on that hunk of Waterford crystal. Yet as I discovered during my annual pilgrimage to the Big Apple, times are a-changin' along the Great White Way.

Playwrights, long considered to be heading toward commercial extinction, are back in force. In the case of Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams, they're back from the dead!

The roster of Broadway productions currently includes plays by David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Aaron Sorkin, Conor McPherson, Tracy Letts, Harold Pinter, along with a surprising Twain exhumation. Williams is just one of the big names waiting in the wings, with revivals of Caryl Churchill, Clifford Odets, and William Inge also on the near horizon.

Of course, with Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins still going strong, Broadway's newest menu items aren't all sugar-free. We'll analyze Broadway, and its upsurge as a protein source, in Part 2 of our "New York, New York" series next week.

This week, we're hanging at Lincoln Center, where seven of the 18 events were staged in this year's CL roundup of Broadway, off-Broadway, classical music and opera. Modernization is sweeping the complex as the Linc gets ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2009 with a massive facelift that will transform its outdoor campus and underground facilities.

Live at Lincoln Center has been a PBS fixture for decades, and in recent years, the New York Philharmonic has increased its prominence on the left side -- the longhair side -- of the radio dial. But if Lincoln Center has become revitalized on a global scale, it's because of the worldwide network of movie theaters showing Met Live on HD broadcasts to sellout crowds clamoring for more.

The pioneering opera telecasts, which we spotlighted during last year's New York pilgrimage, have flourished as I predicted. Together with the madly successful Coast of Utopia trilogy by Stoppard, those HD broadcasts have forged a whole new entertainment paradigm. Broadway and highbrow producers now have abundant evidence that there's a mass audience out there whose attention spans extend far beyond two hours.

Lincoln Center was ground zero for both the HD and Utopia booms. So far in the new millennium, these are the best climate changes I've seen. Here's my rundown of Lincoln Center fare that I attended between Dec. 28 and Jan. 7. (Continuing events indicated in parentheses.)

Die Walkure (***3/4 out of 4) -- After a lordly hiatus of 45 years, Lorin Maazel has returned to the Met Opera pit in prime form. But the true glory is onstage. Freed of the Eurotrash trappings of last year's Canadian Opera Company production, Clifton Forbis and Adrianne Pieczonka are even more triumphant as Siegmund and Sieglinde, the incestuous love couple of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.

The doomed lovers have more than Maazel to inspire them. James Morris is still formidable at age 61 as Wotan, the lawgiving thunder god who sired the sibs during one of his moral lapses. Stephanie Blythe rises to new heights as Fricka, Wotan's vengeful wife, singing with a godly authority I never dreamed possible after seeing her at Santa Fe Opera in Italian in Algiers five years ago.

Only Lisa Gasteen disappoints as Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie who understands her father Wotan's heart but tragically disobeys his command. But even she has powerful moments and cuts a fine war-like figure. Gasteen is at her best in her Act 3 showdown with Morris, particularly in her plaintive final appeal. Maazel is at his most impressive throughout the closing act, launching the action stirringly with the familiar "Ride of the Valkyries" overture. (Through Feb. 9.)

War and Peace (***1/2) -- Moscow burns and Napoleon crosses the vast Met stage on horseback as sheer spectacle matches the epic sweep of Sergei Prokofiev's music. For months, I've been listening diligently to Prokofiev's complete symphonies on the acclaimed set of CDs conducted by Valery Gergiev. Caught up in this glorification of Mother Russia, I couldn't help feeling there was more original, heartfelt Prokofiev here than in all those seven symphonies combined.

Inevitably, the essence of Count Leo Tolstoy's 1,600-page novel -- the acute sketching of his characters, his philosophic ruminations and his historical perspective -- gets lost in a 13-scene reduction. Spider-like, Prokofiev and co-librettist Mira Mendelson leave much of the outer surface intact as they suck out the marrow and infuse the carcass with their own juices.

It's all lovingly done with more than 70 singers in the cast simulating the breadth of Tolstoy's tapestry. Prokofiev doesn't have an outstanding gift for vocal line, but there's enough earnest effort to differentiate the main players musically. With fine believable actors singers in a lavishly budgeted production, propelled by conductor Gianandrea Noseda (replacing Gergiev, who helmed the season premiere), this opera emerges as a masterwork.

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