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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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.