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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Manon Lescaut

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna, photo by Ken Howard

What's that phrase? "Eighty percent of success is showing up"? The Met put that idiom sorely to the test last night when Manon Lescaut had its premiere in a sexless, charmless performance.  The new production had been heavily hyped as a vehicle for Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann, the Manon Lescaut dream team who had already sung successful performances of this opera together in Munich and London. (The Met brochure for this production has no less than three articles exalting the "chemistry of Opolais and Kaufmann" with both of them talking about how "special" it is). But as everyone now knows, Jonas cancelled the entire run (as he is wont to do as of late) and Roberto Alagna jumped into the production with about two weeks to learn both the role and the directions. Last night's program had an insert that called Alagna a "savior" and thanked Alagna "for his ongoing heroics on behalf of the company."


So two leads who proved their professionalism and commitment and showed up had a huge success right? Uh, well ... not exactly? I have no real issue with Alagna's portrayal. It wasn't vocally perfect -- he sounded unsteady in his act one double aria "Tra voi, belle" and "Donna von vidi mai" and he flew off pitch and struggled a couple times in the punishing tessitura of the Act Three finale, but otherwise his performance was idiomatic, sincere, and engaging. A NYTimes article revealed that the 52 year old tenor is about to become a grandfather but for the most part Alagna's voice has held up well beyond his years would suggest. Its forward, metallic sound projects over Puccini's heavy orchestration and he has enough joie de vivre to be believable as a naive young man. Alagna's voice has a way of being able to rise to the climaxes of the music. He not only shows up, he delivers.


A bigger disappointment was Kristine Opolais's Manon. I can see why directors flock to cast her as Manon -- she looks like a 1940's movie star. But Opolais's voice has many built-in limitations. It has a large range -- she can go up to high B or C without much apparent effort -- but it's a small, occasionally sour-sounding instrument that has no bloom, no ability to shape the long, almost Wagnerian lines of Puccini's music. Opolais's problem isn't that she doesn't have a beautiful voice -- many great singers don't. It's that with her clipped, staccato, just-the-notes way of singing, she can't bring out the beauty in Puccini's music. I don't know if this was an artistic choice or a limitation of her voice but she even sang the dramatic, declamatory "Sola, perduta, abbadonata" in a wispy, threadbare tone. Her voice goes to a note and can go no further. It's not a sexy sound, and that adds to the believability problems. F. Scott Fitzgerald described Daisy so memorably as having a "voice full of money." Opolais's Manon has a voice full of lemons.

This is a perfect example. With her particular style of singing, she actually can't express the wistful, tender feeling of "In quelle trine morbide":


Compare this with another active Manon Lescaut, Anna Netrebko. Netrebko's voice simply has more body, more color, more bloom, and this aria as a result becomes more of an expression of Manon's inner life:


Kristine Opolais's dramatic portrayal I also found un-engaging. Her portrayal in Richard Eyre's production differed little from her portrayal in Munich and London -- it seems to have calcified into a cold, transactional, femme fatale reading of Prévost's courtesan. That's certainly a valid interpretation -- Manon Lescaut is a woman so infatuated with luxury that even when warned she insists on looting her lover's jewels and it's that delay that causes her arrest, deportation and death. But I got tired of the sullen, Veronica-lake stares and the lack of passion in the extended duets Puccini wrote for the doomed couple. Des Grieux sings again and again about how passion for Manon makes him "insane," but despite the rolling around that Opolais and Alagna did there was little chemistry or sex appeal in Opolais's cold-fish portrayal. Opolais is a committed actress and obviously works very hard. She showed up. And the audience seems to have liked her, so it was a success. But personally I found her vocally and dramatically wanting. Maybe with Kaufmann (with whom she has a genuine chemistry) it would have been a more exciting show. Who knows.

Here's a peek of what might have been last night in New York:



Cavalletti as Lescaut
The supporting cast was an unexpected surprise. Geronte (Brindley Sherratt) and Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) were both vocally very fine and struck the right notes dramatically.  Sherratt was actually maybe the finest, most solid voice on stage last night. Lescaut in this production is a sleazeball but also a charmer who seems to have some love for his sister. Geronte is actually played somewhat sympathetically -- Manon is so cruel to him that his actions seem justified. 2015 Met National Council Audition winner Virginie Verrez made a promising debut in the brief role of the Musician. Conductor Fabio Luisi recently announced that he is departing his role as the Met's Principal Conductor -- New York's loss. Although there were times he seemed tentative with this new, very-thrown-together cast, he conducted Manon Lescaut with his usual sensitivity and care. The Intermezzo sounded beautiful. He will be missed.

Act Four, photo by Ken Howard

Richard Eyre's staging is basically unobjectionable -- he sets the opera in occupied France, where there was indeed a booming demand for women of easy virtue. The sets by Rob Howell were handsome enough -- they centered around a large stone amphi-theater type set that was manipulated to become a train station, Geronte's mansion, a sea port, and finally the ruins of Geronte's mansion. The costumes by Fotini Dumou created the time period well, and had a cinematic look -- minus the Nazi soldiers, you might have been in a Fred and Ginger movie. There were a few things that annoyed me -- Opolais in Act Two performs a little dance with dancer Martin Harvey. Except they seem to be dancing the flamenco. Why? A larger issue is Eyre never bothered resetting Act Three -- so all the prostitutes are still deported and hustled onto a big ship at the port, supposedly to America where they can be dumped off in the deserts of Louisiana.  But question #1: Uh, why would they be deporting prostitutes in occupied France? Question #2: In wartime, would people in exile have been deported on big ocean liners? And the big ship apparently sails them right back to Paris, where Manon expires in the ruins of Geronte's mansion. But the continuity problems actually didn't bother me that much, maybe because Manon Lescaut itself is a rather convoluted, incoherent take on Prévost's novel. The production was nice to look at and told the story. That's enough. It will serve as a solid production next year when Anna Netrebko is rumored to be singing a revival. I was surprised by the lusty boos the production team received.

The previous night I went to see the Julliard + Met Lindemann Program's presentation of La Sonnambula. I love the Peter Jay Sharp Theater -- small size, wooden panels with great acoustics. In this case, most of the voices were young and fresh and healthy. Special mention should go to Sava Vecic's Rodolfo, Clarissa Lyons' Lisa, and Thesele Kemane, all of whom displayed unusual, memorable timbres. But it was obvious that most of the singers had received very little coaching in terms of language, primo ottocento style and musicality. For instance, why did the Speranza Scappucci conduct so listlessly and lethargically that many singers were noticeably staring at her and trying to get her to pick up the baton again? Why did she conduct over singers during unaccompanied cadenzas, seemingly oblivious that they were, in fact, singing a cadenza? Why was Kang Wang (Elvino), a young tenor with a pleasant, beefy voice cast in a part that obviously was too high for him? Why did Hyesang Park (Amina) sing almost no ornamentations, not even the "traditional" ones, and given bare-bones cadenzas but allowed to end arias, ensembles, and finales in ear-splitting acuti? And why did many of the singers have such a phonetic, mechanical pronunciation? I certainly hope this concert is not reflective of the efforts of the Met's Lindemann program in coaching and preparing young singers.

One more video: by the time Scotto sang Manon Lescaut at the Met she was no spring chicken. Critics and audiences were increasingly hostile to her seeming monopoly on the Met's choice parts. An opening night review mentioned "screamy high notes" and a "tired and wiry" voice. But this video shows exactly what was missing from Kristine Opolais's portrayal last night. Scotto did not have had a plush, conventionally beautiful voice either, but she understands the role, she understands Puccini, she understands Manon Lescaut.


9 comments:

  1. "A bigger disappointment was Kristine Opalais's Manon." Oh, as you are right!

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  2. Another great review. Thank you, Ivy!

    The Scotto clip is pure gold. Whatever her problems/limitations were as a singer at times, as a performer the total was always greater than the sum of the parts. I don't believe there is an opera "star" in the world today who could equal this performance.

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    1. There's also an RAI film with Clara Petrella that despite the ridiculousness of the TV production also shows that Petrella really knew what to do with this role:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXcxrg_-pvs

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  3. Another right on review Ivy though I didn't see it. I saw Opalais 2x@the Met recently, Boheme and Butterfly, and didn't care much for either. Very little vulnerability and came off more as a Scandinavian washer woman than a 15 yr.old Japanese girl.As for setting it in occupied France,it's as illogical as a Rigoletto in Las Vegas,in which,inter alia, scudi are used as currency, a lounge singer has the right to exile a rival from Nevada and,among other operatic gang rapes, Rigoletto parks his daughter on the top floor of a casino to protect her virginity when he knows that the only reasons people come to Vegas are to gamble and fuck. The Nazis deporting hookers!? To America! BTW, in 58 yrs.of opera going, by far the most stunningly effective Butterfly I've ever seen was Li Ping Zhang as a Met replacement a few years back. I went back to see her twice, both times with larger boxes of Kleenex. Had never heard anything like it.Devastating stuff.

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    1. I heard Liping Zhang at the Met too. Agree. Men and women around me were crying openly.

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    2. Ivy, There are a few ushers at the Met who saw Liping Zhang's Butterfly and agree with us!
      Madison... aka fernhill36

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    3. I, too, saw Liping Zhang live as Butterfly, and it remains one of the most moving and memorable performances I have ever seen in any opera. She was also great as Liu when I saw her in Turandot back in 2007.

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  4. Is it weird that I find Mattila preferable to Opolais? Ditto Westbroek? I'm sure it's a minority opinion but though neither woman is her best when singing that role, and even though Mattila really went a bit overboard dramatically, they had a consistent arc that made the character much more empathetic and involving. After all the cold icy "femme fatale" staring, I thought Opolais was pretty tremendous during her final scene, but the women she was playing here in no way cohered with the woman I had been watching in the previous acts. Maybe it's because I find the character somewhat insufferable (why the hell is she so inexplicably slow at gathering up some jewels?)but Opolais really made me feel completely disconnected, which the other two most certainly did not. And whatever very real vocal flaws the other two might have had, I personally find the basic timbre of their voices both more beautiful and more memorable than Opolais (and Westbroek actually sounds more Italianate IMO).

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    1. No, it's not weird. Westbroek is a great actress who as of late has run into some vocal problems (i.e. wobble) but she remains an extremely sympathetic actress with a timbre that is also softer and more alluring than Opolais.

      Watch Westbroek here.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf9Q_ijieao

      The basic sound of her voice remains sexy and feminine.

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