Youth Is Not Served in Met’s ‘Manon’

N.Y. Cast Lacks Chem­istry and Verve

The Washington Post - - Arts - By Anne Mid­gette

NEW YORK uc­cini’s “Manon Lescaut” is a youth­ful opera. It’s about young lovers, by a young com­poser who is au­di­bly burst­ing with mu­si­cal ideas, un­able to fin­ish one thought be­fore scam­per­ing off af­ter an­other. It is not Puc­cini’s best opera, or his most pop­u­lar, but it is filled with things to like.

Af­ter a pause of 18 years, the Metropoli­tan Opera tried to re­turn the opera to its stage with a bang on Tues­day night. “Manon Lescaut,” with the cel­e­brated Fin­nish so­prano Karita Mat­tila, is one of the com­pany’s eight HD broad­casts this sea­son; it will be shown live in movie the­aters around the world (in­clud­ing in the D.C. area) on Feb. 16.

But noth­ing about Tues­day’s per­for­mance felt very new or youth­ful, start­ing with the 1980 pro­duc­tion (orig­i­nally by Gian Carlo Menotti). Within Des­mond Hee­ley’s cav­ernous, by-the-book sets, the prin­ci­pals seemed to be sim­ply go­ing through var­i­ous mo­tions.

Mat­tila was an odd choice for the role in any case. She has been a ra­di­ant Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fide­lio,” mem­o­rable as Strauss’s “Salome,” sear­ing in Janacek’s “Jen­ufa” — but th­ese are not pr­ereq­ui­sites for suc­cess in the Ital­ian reper­tory. Her voice needs space and time to bloom to its round, sweet full­ness. In this taut, crack­ling mu­sic, she seemed on some level to be try­ing to keep up.

It is a tough job for any ac­tress of a cer­tain age to play a young teenager, es­pe­cially one who is flaky and un­sym­pa­thetic. Manon is an 18th­cen­tury Val­ley girl, ea­ger for sex and ma­te­rial wealth, al­ways reach­ing for the greener grass on the other side of what­ever fence she per­ceives at the mo­ment, veer­ing from the hand-

Psome young Des Grieux to the sugar daddy Geronte. Af­ter her aria “In quelle trine mor­bide,” mourn­ing the ab­sence of pas­sion in her life of lux­ury, Mat­tila stomped off to throw her­self on her bed: a grown wo­man mim­ick­ing a sulky teen. Nor was there much chem­istry be­tween her and her Des Grieux, Mar­cello Gior­dani. Gior­dani has all the in­gre­di­ents to fill the role of the Met’s star tenor: a re­mark­able range, a strong in­stru­ment, an at­trac­tive stage pres­ence. But he frus­trates, of­ten, through his in­abil­ity to com­bine them. His singing was some­times ring­ing and won­der­ful, some­times con­stricted and la­bored, of­ten over­thought, and too sel­dom as good as he could be.

The rest of the cast was re­spectable — Dwayne Croft, now a de­cent house bari­tone, as Manon’s brother; Dale Travis as Geronte. But not even the young tal­ent with which the Met stocked the opera’s bit parts — in­clud­ing Sean Panikkar in his com­pany de­but as the stu­dent Ed­mondo — could light up the night.

It wasn’t for lack of ef­fort on the part of mu­sic di­rec­tor James Levine. In re­cent years, un­spec­i­fied phys­i­cal prob­lems have some­times ren­dered his con­duct­ing ges­tures al­most in­dis­cernible, but on Tues­day he seemed to have shed 20 years and re­turned to the wide-armed ges­tic- ula­tions of old. At the start of the evening, the mu­sic sounded al­most too wild, but he reined it in and prac­ti­cally car­ried the whole cast through, point­ing his ba­ton at the oddly flac­cid cho­rus, cu­ing the singers note by note.

Watch­ing the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of de­tails that kept fail­ing to come to­gether, one won­dered how it would play on-screen. Opera is not sup­posed to fa­vor close-ups, but to­day’s singers, striv­ing for what they think of as nat­u­ral­ism, are more at­tuned to nu­ances that don’t nec­es­sar­ily come across on­stage. In the bristling mu­sic of the Act 2 love duet be­tween Manon and Des Grieux, phrases and words were muted, un­clear; but the at­ten­tive mi­cro­phone, the car­ing lens, will pick them up for the broad­cast au­di­ence. Mat­tila and Gior­dani seemed to be mov­ing across the stage like sleep­walk­ers, wait­ing for the cam­era to kiss them awake.


Karita Mat­tila (with Mar­cello Gior­dani) proved ill-cho­sen for the youth­ful ti­tle role of Puc­cini’s “Manon Lescaut.”

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