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Karita Mattila - credit Lauri Eriksson
03 Feb 2008

Karita Mattila Performs Manon Lescaut

When I worked in the Archives of the Met, I was custodian of several hundred costumes, many from the days when divas traveled with steamer trunks full of things run up just for them, by the finest designers, with the most glamorous materials, in the colors and styles that suited the ladies themselves.

Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
The Metopolitan Opera (Performance of 1 February 2008)

Manon Lescaut: Karita Mattila; Des Grieux: Marcello Giordani; Lescaut: Dwayne Croft; Geronte: Dale Travis; Edmondo: Sean Panikkar; Lamplighter: Tony Stevenson. Conducted by James Levine.

Above: Karita Mattila (photo by Lauri Eriksson)


These they wore in whatever production of the specific opera happened to be on the boards — this was before operas were set in eras other than those intended. The gaudiest items in the collection belonged to the ladies of ailing repute: Violetta (the two party scenes) and Manon — either Manon, Act III, or Manon Lescaut, Act II. Tiny, exquisite Bidu Sayão had the most glorious Manon costume — pink silk with a front of cabbage roses of different hues, each one created from sewn sequins. (Her Violetta Act I wasn’t bad either — crimson velvet, dripping with gold beads.) But Licia Albanese’s Manon Lescaut was at least their equal: cream silk brocade with, at the neck, the heads of peacocks sewn in glass jewels, their silver necks descending the length of the cloak to spread their tails — all glass jewels — over the side panels. Rivalry? Nonsense — the ladies were great friends. Besides, Sayão wisely never attempted any Puccini part but Mimi.

So it is too bad that the Met has clothed Karita Mattila’s Manon Lescaut in the same off-white shmatta used in Desmond Heeley’s production for every other diva who has sung in it: Scotto, Freni, Cruz-Romo, Zylis-Gara. These are ladies with distinctive individual style; it would have added to the occasion to allow them to choose a look as well. But in the Heeley production, the Act II gown has to become its duplicate in Act III, when a bedraggled, imprisoned Manon is still wearing it after her disgrace, and a still more battered version in Act IV, when she perishes in the colonies. This is a pity, as Mattila sets her own special stamp on this — as on every — role, and as anyone who has ever seen her in recital can tell you, this strikingly beautiful woman certainly knows how to dress. (As anyone who saw her Salome can tell you, she knows how to undress too.)

Her singing, happily, is hers. It is not Italianate — as everyone has already pointed out. Her voice is cool for Puccini. Never mind: it is such a beautiful voice, and of such quality and richness, so technically finished (she even tosses off a perfect casual trill during the flirtations of Act II), so intense in Manon’s later despairs, so light and naïve in Act I that I, for one, forgive her everything: I can’t think of any other soprano these days whom I would rather hear in this part. (This is not true of, say, Tosca and Turandot, with which she is experimenting back home in Finland — I don’t think her voice would suit the hysterics of the one, the cruel tessitura of the other. I wish she would sing Arabella or Vitellia or Emilia Marty here instead.) The only falling off — and it may have been a result of pushing herself through “In quelle trine morbide” — came during Act II’s passionate duet with Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux, where she seemed unable to summon the sheer sensual voice this scene requires.

All this is to say nothing of her acting — her observant wonder in the inn courtyard, her teenage kicking of her heels over her head (try this at 47, ladies) as she sings of her boredom in Geronte’s bedchamber, her wholly credible extinction, when the gorgeous phrases Puccini gave, unrealistically, to a girl dying of thirst, seemed to be her heart and life force expelling their last gasps. Opera isn’t real; it’s more than real; that’s the point.

I saw Mattila’s Manon Lescaut in Chicago two seasons back, in a production that gave her more scope to create character in Act I, but also gave her Vladimir Galouzine for a partner — an exciting singing actor with no notion of how to produce Italian line. The Met has provided Marcello Giordani, who is in his element, an ardent actor blooming lustily into exquisite anguish in the higher register as every good Italian lover should. If only he’d sung this way in Lucia last fall — but bel canto is not the ideal fach for this singer; Puccini, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer and verismo are his meat. Good to have him back where he belongs.

Dwayne Croft, so stiff when he plays leading men, is gratifyingly restrained in the often over-camped part of Manon’s slimy brother. (As Tom Lehrer put it, “Don’t solicit for your sister — that’s not nice — unless you get a good percentage of her price.”) Dale Travis is imposingly self-absorbed as her rich old lover — we credit both his simpers and his malice. Sean Panikkar makes a charming Edmondo but does not steal the scene from Des Grieux, as a great Edmondo can. Tony Stevenson sings the lamplighter well — but is he so busy singing that he needs an assistant to actually light the lamps? He’s supposed to toss the air off as he goes about his lonely job.

James Levine returns with every evidence of delight to this most blooming, most constantly delicious of Puccini scores; it frisks and sighs and bounces under his touch. Gina Lapinski is credited with restaging the show (which has not been shown in some twenty years), and she has come up with some neat touches — Geronte, having been humiliated with a mirror by Manon, vengefully holds it up to her own face at the end of Act II — but the crowd could make way a bit more effectively when Mattila alights from her coach in Act I. In Chicago we noticed her the moment she appeared, she riveted the busy stage, and she looked like a curious, impulsive teenager. At the Met, there is such clutter — we do not at first pay any attention to her.

Manon Lescaut appears to be the tawdry story of a very young and shallow girl who can’t decide between love and luxury, and dies for her sins in the “desert of Louisiana.” Actually, it is the far more exciting story of a young genius of 35 who finds himself (in the desert of Lombardy) as an opera composer: it was Puccini’s third, his first triumph, and it convinced Verdi (among others) that he was the hope of Italian opera. Its floods of melody will delight in any decent performance, in scene after memorable scene, to the point that we deliriously ignore the awkward dramaturgy (expressly concocted to avoid the high points of Massenet’s and Auber’s versions of the story). It is the more ironic, then, that the wayward heroine expires of thirst in all this juicy Italianitá. It’s a glum moment, but you can’t be depressed when your ear is still ringing with a dozen such irresistible tunes. Manon may be a corpse, but Puccini’s future and fortune were assured.

On his deathbed, they say, thirty years later, Puccini begged his friends not to forget Manon. We’d probably hear Manon Lescaut more often if we did not have Mimi and Tosca and Butterfly grabbing the stage time. Their stories are more clearly told and dramatic stories, it’s true, but I weary of their calculated coups de théâtre. I’d rather hear Manon than any of the others; I appreciate her return after long absence — especially if a soprano and tenor arrive with the voices to put stars in my ears, and whose acting makes me believe for a moment that they are a pair of adolescent fools.

John Yohalem

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