26 Apr 2012
Manon, Metropolitan Opera
Massenet’s Manon succeeds in the theater when the soprano has a real sense of the role and how she wants to present it.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
Massenet’s Manon succeeds in the theater when the soprano has a real sense of the role and how she wants to present it.
There are other juicy roles in the opera, notably that of her Chevalier des Grieux, but a Manon with a vapid Manon never works (no pun on working girl intended). At the Met, Manon has been a major vehicle for singing actresses with small voices but great cachet: Bori, Sayão, Albanese, de los Angeles, and across the Plaza it was a triumph for the vocal acting of Beverly Sills, my first Manon. More recently I have heard Renée Fleming’s listless interpretation at the Met and Natalie Dessay’s rather more on-target version (opposite Jonas Kaufman) in Chicago.
Anna Netrebko has appeared in two DVDs of the opera in rather different styles as she adjusted to different directors’ visions. Now she has come to the Met in a production by Laurent Pelly that allows her to be Manon as she understands this very young, very material girl. A fine actress as well as a talented and hardworking singer with a lovely if not always ideally exploited voice, she makes a thrilling, fully realized sensation in the part.
Anna Netrebko as Manon Lescaut
Netrebko brings rather more voice to Manon than is usually the case. She restrains her full-throated sound in the opening scenes, when Manon is fifteen and—at least in Act I—a virgin, albeit une jeune fille en fleur. She then exploits the voluptuous grandeur of her sound to the full to play the haughty beauty of the Cour-la-Reine and the passionate seductress of St. Sulpice. She reaches an ecstatic pinnacle in the Hotel de Transylvania scene, and her glow of sensual delight in the thrill of life and high society and being an object desired by Des Grieux and every other man in the room (and envied by all the women whom she used to envy) flushed body and voice with narcissistic delight. The pitiful comedown (enhanced by Chantal Thomas’s despairing, empty landscape—the best setting of the production) was perhaps not so sickly, so evanescent as the usual Manon plays it. Netrebko still had plenty of lung power to display, expressive more of agony than resigned regret. This makes me eager to hear her take on Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which requires full-blooded sensuality in the voice from start to finish and hasn’t had it since Freni and Scotto stopped singing the part.
In any case, I can guarantee that those who go to the opera for Netrebko in Manon will not find a half-understood, half-realized or lackluster portrayal. She is bursting with life even in her saddest moments, which makes the fluster she creates among the men around her perfectly comprehensible—even in the Pelly production that (in keeping with our pornographic age) insists on making explicit, shoving our nose into, what Massenet is content to imply: the rape fantasies not merely imagined but enacted by just about every male on stage, of Manon and of every girl in the corps de ballet. (I think Massenet had it right, and Pelly’s direction undercuts the effect of Manon’s fate.)
Piotr Beczala as des Grieux and Anna Netrebko as Manon Lescaut
Piotr Beczala plays Des Grieux. He is goodlooking, tender, frenzied by turns, a fine actor and a sympathetic figure. His voice always gives pleasure, interpreting and expressing; if it sometimes fades to indistinction in the distant reaches of the house. Michael Todd Simpson replaced Paulo Szot as Manon’s corrupt cousin at the last minute, presumably with little preparation—but there was nothing in his professional, casually sensuous performance to indicate that anything (in life or this story) was new to him; he was entirely at ease, his voice agreeable and suave, his acting witty and to the point. I am told he is an admired Don Giovanni and I am eager to hear him take it on. Christophe Mortagne, light of step and livid with, alas, not quite impotent indignation, was quite fine as the roué Guillot. The trio of cocottes was played by Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jennifer Black and Ginger Costa-Jackson, top-notch casting for these small but far from insignificant character roles. They set Manon off, inspiring her to her life of ill-fame, but since they have no hearts, they have survived the catastrophe to which she succumbs.
The production is set in fin-de-siècle Paris, an era in which girls of ill fame (and accusation) were not sent to exile in Louisiana. I am not sure what Mr. Pelly thinks he has gained by abandoning the proper era except anything-as-long-as-it-hasn’t-been-done is the current style. Nor is there any point at all in having Des Grieux sleep in a bed in the nave of St. Sulpice except (as we guessed from the rise of the curtain on the scene) it will enable the act to end not with Manon and her priest taking hands and running off but with them wallowing on the blankets. Is this realistic? Do you, if you seduce someone, not seek privacy to consummate the event? Again: It is merely Pelly slavishly following current fashion, which is as evanescent as adolescent passion. I can’t wait to be free of it and of the artists who succumb to it.
Anne-Carolyn Bird as Poussette, Paulo Szot as Lescaut, Ginger Costa-Jackson as Rosette, and Jennifer Black as Javotte
Fabio Luisi led the Met orchestra in a suave, elegant account of this long, tuneful score and made the dramatic points: Real emotions lurked under the frivolous surface.
Someone should really tell the Met Titlestm that “abbé” does not mean abbot or imply the existence of an abbey; it is simply a polite way to address a priest in French.