Youth Is Not Served in Met's 'Manon'

Karita Mattila (with Marcello Giordani) proved ill-chosen for the youthful title role of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut."
Karita Mattila (with Marcello Giordani) proved ill-chosen for the youthful title role of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut." (By Ken Howard -- The Metropolitan Opera Via The Associated Press)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008


Puccini'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 18th-century 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 handsome 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 gesticulations 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.

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