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Get Thee to a Nunnery!

New York
Metropolitan Opera
01/29/2008 -  and February 01, 09, 16, 20, 23
Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
Karita Mattila (Manon Lescaut), Marcello Giordani (Des Grieux), Dwayne Croft (Lescaut), Dale Travis (Geronte), Sean Panikkar (Edmondo), Paul Plishka (Innkeeper), Tamara Mumford (Musician), Bernard Fitch (Dancing Master), James Courtney (Sergeant), Tony Stevenson (Lamplighter), Keith Miller (Sea captain), Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Black, Sasha Cooke, Ellen Rabiner (Madrigal singers).
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, James Levine (conductor)
Desmond Heeley (set and costume designer), Gil Wechsler (lighting designer), Gina Lapinski (stage director).

While last night’s performance of Puccini’s first successful opera was a scintillating one, thanks to James Levine and Marcello Giordani, one must ask why Manon Lescaut is the least popular of Puccini’s mature operas. The music seems familiar (since the later operas virtually copy the formula), the story should be a touching one, and when one has a tenor like Marcello Giordani as Des Grieux and a conductor like James Levine, it can be an entrancing opera.

Several reasons, and the performance last night was indicative of its weakness. First, Manon Lescaut is like two separate operas. The first two acts are lush, happy, they can be lusciously garish in the sets, and the supposed “escape” scene at the end is more like farce than melodrama. The second two acts are sheer desolation. Act Three looks like it comes from Il Tabarro, with its lonely miserable shipping scenes, the parade of prostitutes, the seeming madness of Des Grieux and the series of unsuccessful rescues. Act Four is equally desolate for a different reason. It takes place in a desert, of all things, with only two characters, one starving to death, the other one loving to death.
(By the way, the Met Opera’s program that this takes place in a “desolate area of the Louisiana Territory” is totally wrong. Puccini specifically calls this an “interminable plain on the borders of New Orleans.” This imaginary area is presumably in the neighborhood of Shakespeare’s “seacoast in Bohemia”!)

The second problem is that the characters are, one and all, horrible people. Geronte is a rapacious vengeful old man, Lescaut is a scoundrel who would sell his sister (and anybody else) for money. Des Grieux is a fool. A fool for love, but a fool nonetheless. And his love is for Manon, who could be a temptress, harlot, a combination of Jezebel and Camille.

Alas, in the widely lauded Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, we have a woman resembling more Suor Angelica than a floozie courtesan. From her first duet to the final “sola perduta” (“alone and lost”), her voice is clear as a bell, she takes her high B flats and high C’s so easily, effortlessly, without even scintilla of an attack, that she seems without emotion. The Act Two moments of humor with the Dancing Master and Madrigal Singers were merely dull, (Ms. Mattila could not let herself go wild.

Does Manon moan about her “fatal attractions”? Yes, but they are difficult to see. Instead, one kept thinking of her original trip to Amiens, where she was going to a convent. Does she rapaciously sweep up her jewels rather than save herself from punishment? Yes, but it seems out of place. Even during the Act Two bed scenes, where she lies down seductively or rips the pillow from the bed, they seem out of place. One would love to see her as poor little Mimì in La Bohème, but for the one strong character in this opera of lily-livered cast, Ms. Mattila is more “great voice” than “great personality”.

Yes, in her lamentation, "In quelle trine morbide" (“In those soft hangings”) she gave power to one of Puccini's most beautiful songs. But it could have been sung in a recital instead of a lyric drama.

Yet this production is musically hardly a failure. James Levine started off the 1720 student hubbub with a brisk tempo and a refreshing easy sense until the Tristanesque intermezzo which never let up until the final tragic moments. Dwayne Croft was suitably a subtle scoundrel, and Dale Travis sung well in the part of the cuckolded old man. It is a thankless role without any great arias, and no great character, but his voice was fine.

And now, we come to the real reason why this Manon Lescaut was a triumph. In two words: Marcello Giordani as Des Grieux has a voice which brings back memories of the greatest tenors of the so-called Golden Age. His voice has the richness, the intonation, and above all the sweep of a Tucker, a Björling, almost a Pavarotti. True, the latter made it look easy, and Giordani impresses you with just what magic he has. But the audience was incredibly impressed, as they should have been.
It would be useless to choose which parts he made his own. Every note he sung resounded through the Met, every love duet he conquered with the passive Ms. Mattila, and every act was a triumph for this incredible tenor.

For this voice alone, Manon Lescaut is, with all its faults, the grandest of Grand Opera. Whatever faults this production had, Giordani’s was the tenor of another era, and we were elated and honored by such a voice.

Harry Rolnick



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