I imagine that the Met’s almost 30 year old production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was brought back as a vehicle for one of the company’s star sopranos, Karita Mattila. If so it was a mistake. Prior to this run the Finnish singer had only performed one Puccini role at the Met – Musetta in six performances of La Boheme back in 1996.
She doesn’t have the right vocal style for Puccini. There’s a break in her register when she goes from middle voice to high notes. Her top doesn’t have the ring one associates with Puccini’s sopranos. Mattila’s high notes in this performance seemed to have been imported from a Strauss opera. Worse, her acting was bumptious. In the first act she seemed to on her way to a convent fresh from a barnyard. In the second act she was a Rockette direct from The Radio City Music Hall. She concluded her dancing lesson with a split. She’s obviously very proud of this ability as she did two of them before an astounded Renee Fleming during the first intermission feature. Fleming, in passing, is a very good TV interviewer and looks better than she has for quite some time.
Compounding Mattila’s problems was video director Brian Large’s in your face closeups which made one think that Mattila and Nancy Pelosi share the same plastic surgeon. Mattila’s acting and singing did improve in the 4th act. There she was not required to be coquettish or coy. Her performance of “Sola, perduta, abbondonatta” was moving. But on balance I don’t think the soprano will be glad that this performances is preserved for all time and that it’s also on the way to the stars and beyond.
Marcello Giordani, on the other hand, was the right tenor in the right role. His voice is now a fully formed spinto. His Des Grieux was the best I’ve encountered since Richard Tucker. It was the late tenor’s favorite role. Having heard Giordani in the house I’m confident that what I heard from the satellite was authentic. His tone was round and burnished. All the high notes were ringing. Des Grieux is a great part for an Italian spinto and Giordani got everything out of it. His acting was conventional Italian tenor, but with the way he sang that was plenty. In an age of super specialization, when a baseball pitcher is expected to only play half a game, Giordani voice was stronger and more vibrant at the opera’s end than at its start.
Dwayne Croft seems to have settled into a career as a second banana. He was fine as Lescaut. Sean Panikkar made a good impression in the first act as Edmondo.
Once again James Levine’s conducting was outstanding. He seems like a new maestro. The sound engineers had the volume turned too high on the orchestra making it out of balance with the singers. Nevertheless Levine’s whip-like intensity was palpable. The Met Orchestra responded with their best playing which is just about as good as it gets. The three decade old production held up well enough though it appears its age.
So the Met revived the opera for the wrong soprano only to be bailed out by a great performance by a tenor who seems to have become the house’s all purpose leading man. A masterly job by Levine also didn’t hurt. Two out of three in the theater is pretty good. If Giordani continues to sing like this perhaps the Met will mount a production for him. If so, I hope Levine conducts.