This production of Massenet's Manon, directed by Laurent Pelly, won acclaim when it premiered in London with Anna Netrebko in 2010. Polenzani sang the part with her when the Royal Opera House took the production on tour to Japan later that summer. He also sang the part in this same production when it was heard at Teatro alla Scala, Milan in 2012, with Ermonela Jaho, who sings Manon in this first London revival.
“It’s a beautiful production”, he says, Very well thought out, and lots to see and think about” Polenzani has worked with Pelly before, most recently in Offenbach The Tales of Hoffman in 2013. “You don’t often get directors who get along with singers well and can talk things through clearly”. Even though he has done the part several times, each new run is unique because dynamics change with different casts. “Anna and Ermonela are both fabulously beautiful, but they have different personalities and different voices. And this time, I’m also singing with Ailyn Pérez in the last few performances in this run. I’ve worked with her before, too, so I know her sentiments about Manon. It’s good to make changes with different singers at different times, it keeps things interesting. A director can’t just tell a singer ’in bar 52, walk stage left’. You need to be able to work with each other so it feels natural”.
“I gravitate towards Massenet. Des Grieux is good to sing because he touches a lot of things that are important to me in my life. He’s an honest guy, and he’s moved by his heart. I was just talking to Christian Rath, Pelly’s associate director, about how Des Grieux’s feelings work. Soon after they meet he calls her ‘Enchanteresse’. He’s no longer master of himself. Then, in the seminary, he wants to place God between himself and the world, but goes off with Manon when she turns up. He calls her “Sphinx etonnant
que je t’aime et te hais”. He’s not taking responsibility for himself, he lets himself be manipulated because he won’t own up to what happens. A part of me understands that youthfulness, yet as a father myself, although my sons are much younger, I can understand how his father feels. The Comte wants what’s best for his son, and what’s good for the family, but sons are headstrong”.
“French repertoire is good for my voice, even more so than Italian, though I sing both. I like roles like Werther, Hoffmann and des Grieux because I can get myself around them nicely. It’s a real joy! In America, we don’t get enough French opera. Even Faust doesn’t come round too often”. Polenzani works regularly in Europe, and has worked at the Royal Opera House, the Bayerisches Staatsoper, the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Frankfurt, the Deutsches Oper Berlin and elsewhere, but his career is rooted in the United States.
“I was so happy to sing Ferrando for James Levine when he returned to the Metropolitan Opera last year for Cosí fan tutte. He was in unbelievably good form after that hiatus. My music making has been strongly shaped by his hand, especially in Mozart which he does in the Romantic style, which I love. It feeds my soul. Hopefully I will work with him for many years yet. Where I am as a musician and where I want to go has very much been shaped by watching him work, not only with me but with many others”. Polenzani’s first big role at the Met was David in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under Levine in 2001. He also sang recitals with Levine on piano. “It’s been a lovely journey since then”, smiles Polenzani, warmly.
“When we singers go on stage we put everything we have into giving the best possible performance. We pour out our souls. How can you portray emotions if you aren’t sensitive to feelings ? We’re trying to infuse the words of the librettist and the music of the composer with feeling so the audience will care about what happens to the parts we sing. It’s dangerous to get too emotional of course, because you can get verklammt (jammed up) but it’s what we do. I have a beautiful wife, a singer whose ears I can always trust. I can sing for her and know that her feedback will be on the mark, and can suggest ways of fixing things that I don’t notice myself. When I’m on the road, I tape things. Criticism should be constructive. That’s one of James Levine’s greatest strengths. His musicianship is off the charts. He finds a way to help a singer get the most out of his performance”.
For more on Massenet Manon at the Royal Opera House, see here. Matthew Polenzani's website is here.