|Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna, photo by Ken Howard|
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|
|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.