La Scena Musicale

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Puccini: Manon Lescaut

Karita Mattila, Marcello Giordani, Dwayne Croft, Dale Travis
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus / James Levine
EMI Classics 50999 2 17420 9 5 DVD (137 min)
***** $$$
This Manon Lescaut is Puccini at his verismo best. If you are a tenor fan, you’ll love Des Grieux’s four arias and the extended Art Two duet. But the centerpiece here is the great Karita Mattila as Manon Lescaut. A great Eva, Elsa, Jenufa, Katya, Elisabetta, Lisa, Tatyana, Arabella, Salome, and Leonore, Mattila is not an ideal Puccini singer, since her Nordic sound with its cool timbre and relatively "straight tone" is not suited to the "blood and guts" verismo genre. But she is quite wonderful here. Partnering her is Italian tenor Marcello Giordani as Des Grieux. Baritone Dwayne Croft is the callous brother Lescaut and character baritone Dale Travis is Geronte. This quarter-century-old production looks handsome if rather old fashioned. Large gestures in the theatre enable those sitting in the gallery to see what’s going on and heavy make-up prevents the singers' faces from looking washed out. However, such exaggerated acting and heavy make-up have been toned down for the telecast. At 47, Mattila still looks youthful, but there is no point in pretending that she is the embodiment of the teenage Manon, especially when closeups are so unforgiving. Her two high Cs and loads of Bs are thrilling; less attractive are her weak middle and lower registers. Her Manon is dramatically nuanced, vulnerable and sympathetic. As Des Grieux, Giordani sings with a secure top and is suitably ardent, but he looks a bit mature. Act One is always a bit slow, but by the last two acts, Mattila and Giordani burn up the stage. American baritone Dwyane Croft is good if a little anonymous in the rather thankless role of Lescaut. Dale Travis is excellent as Geronte. Not exactly a Puccini conductor, James Levine surprises everyone with his passionate and involved conducting in an opera he has not touched in twenty years, drawing torrents of sound from the orchestra at the climaxes. Perhaps not a Manon Lescaut for the ages, but overall a satisfying performance.

- Joseph K. So

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Met Opera in HD opens with Glittery Gala

Top Left: Deborah Voigt interviewing Paulo Szot in Time Square

Photo: Ken Howard
Top Right: Renee Fleming in Capriccio

Photo: Ken Howard
Below:Renee Fleming as Violetta

Photo: Ruby Washington / New York Times

Metropolitan Opera in HD opens with Glittery Gala

Joseph So

Now in its third season, the Gelb-inspired, wildly successful Metropolitan Opera in HD opened Monday night with a starry gala consisting of one act each from three operas featuring America's reigning diva, soprano Renee Fleming. The live simulcasts of 14 operas the past two seasons have attracted 1.3 million viewers, a staggering figure when you consider the Met, humongous as opera houses go, has a capacity of only 4,100 including standing room. With this new innovation, the Met has managed to reach a huge worldwide audience, as these shows are also seen in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia, and for the first time, Mexico City, the home of tenor Ramon Vargas who also starred in two of the three operas. Despite a few naysayers, there is no question that the Met in HD initiative has gone a long way to promote opera to the general public.

Given the Met success, other houses have jumped on the bandwagon. La Scala's opening night Tristan und Isolde last December 7 was shown in movie houses in Europe and the US (but sadly not in English Canada); San Francisco, Covent Garden and Opera Australia each have their own, non-live simulcasts, but their impact cannot compare to the live Met events, which has a real sesne of occasion. None was more stunning than the opening gala on Monday. Taking a page from Hollywood, the Met laid down the red carpet in Lincoln Center to welcome celebrities the likes of Martha Stewart, German soprano Diana Damrau, and NY mayor Michael Bloomberg. The show was also shown on outdoor screens in Time Square and Fordham University. Mezzo Susan Graham and soprano Deborah Voigt served as roaming reporters speaking, with luminaries and opera fans/tourists alike, lending the event a truly festive feel.

The centerpiece of the event was of course soprano Renee Fleming, America's sweetheart, at least operatically speaking. She combines personal beauty with a seamless, creamy voice and loads of personality. To showcase her talent, the Met put on Act 2 of La traviata, Act 3 of Manon, and the final scene from Capriccio. Now twenty years after winning the Met Auditions, the Fleming voice is still in pristine shape, a testament to her excellent technique and musical acumen. For this extravaganza, several designers created gowns for her, and she wore La Voce, her own perfume. Even Martha Stewart made a special champagne concoction, The Grand Dame, to toast Renee during intermission - talk about being in diva heaven!

Opposite Fleming in two of the three operas was Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas - perhaps not the most romantic-looking of tenors around, but certainly among the most vocally impeccable today, especially as Alfredo. (Too bad his cabaletta was cut) As Des Grieux, his lyric tenor was stretched in "Ah fuyez, douce image" in the St. Sulpice scene, but he coped well. American baritone Thomas Hampson is no stranger to Germont, having sung it in many high profile productions, including the recent Salzburg production with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko. Despite his good intentions, there is no disguising the fact that Hampson is not a true Verdi baritone. He sang all the notes with honour if not distinction. To my ears, Hampson lacks the vocal opulence, the large, rich, mellow, commanding sound of a Robert Merrill or a young Sherrill Milnes to do Germont justice - one longs for Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Bryn Terfel in this role.

The "other" leading American baritone of the evening was Dwayne Croft, in the rather thankless role of Lescaut. He sang correctly but given Fleming's star power, Lescaut's little aria went by with nary a stir from the audience. British bass Robert Lloyd did rather better as a commanding Comte des Grieux. Capriccio's final scene is essentially a one-woman show, and Fleming never looked more gorgeous in the Art Deco outfit, or sounding more vocally resplendent in Madeleine's musing of the primacy of word or music. Veteran American baritone Michael Devlin did a star turn in the cameo role of the Major Domo.

Final Thoughts - few singers today are as gifted as Renee Fleming, and by and large she lived up to the hype. However, I must say that she has become more and more mannered with time. Much of that mannerism was in evidence here. It suited her Manon better than her Violetta - afterall, Manon is the born coquette. Even here, her vocal mannerism was a bit over the top, especially in the cloyingly sung Gavotte. The last twenty minute of Capriccio has some of the most sublime music Strauss ever wrote, and Fleming sang it very beautifully to be sure. But her acting was so extravagant, so excessive that it almost ruined it for me - sometimes, economy of movement makes more of a statement than the incessant waving of hands caressing every inch of one's face and neck. One marvels at the depth of feeling in the aristsocratic stillness of Kiri Te Kanawa, Elizabeth Söderström, or even Johanna Meier as Madeleine. I am afraid there is nothing Parisian - or Straussian for that matter - about the Madeleine of Renee Fleming, only American Apple Pie.

The Met orchestra was led by three maestri - James Levine received a rousing ovation, not only for his conducting of the Verdi, but for his recovery from kidney cancer surgery. The Met Traviata production combines acts 2 and 3, and Levine led the Met forces even more leisurely than usual. In Manon, Marco Armiliato led the orchestra with a firm and sure hand. But for me, the best of the evening was Patrick Summers in the 20-minute final scene from Capriccio - the moonlight music never sounded more trancendent.

I saw the simulcast at the Scotiabank Theatres in downtown Toronto. Everything went well, except for about 15 minutes in the beginning when there was no subtitles. There was likely some technical improvements to the picture quality from last season, as the brightness level has really improved. The sound quality was glitch-free. The next show will be Salome with the great Karita Mattila - get your tickets, you wouldn't want to miss it!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Puccini : Manon Lescaut

Simulcast du Metropolitan Opera House de New York

Samedi 16 février 2008, 13 h 00

Distribution : Karita Mattila (Manon Lescaut), Marcello Giordani (chevalier des Grieux), Sean Panikkar (Edmondo), Dwayne Croft (Lescaut), Dale Travis (Geronte), Paul Phlishka (l’aubergiste), Tamara Mumford (une musicienne), Bernard Fitch (un maître de danse), un allumeur de lampadaires (Tony Stevenson)

Chœurs et orchestre du Metropolitan Opera House de New York dirigés par James Levine

Costumes et décors : Desmond Heeley.

Mise en scène : Gina Lapinski.

Production originellement (1980) conçue et mise en scène par Gian Carlo Menotti


La production de Manon Lescaut de Puccini que l’on a pu voir lors du simulcast de samedi est virtuellement la même (décors, costumes, mise en scène) que celle, signée Gian Carlo Menotti, dont témoignait, il y a déjà près de trente ans, une représentation de l’œuvre mettant en vedette Renata Scotto et Placido Domingo qui est disponible en DVD sous étiquette Deutsche Grammophon (00440 073 4241). Tout au plus a-t-on rafraîchi quelques éléments de décor. L’ensemble est d’un réalisme efficace dont il n’y a pas lieu de se plaindre, sauf peut-être au dernier acte, excessivement sombre et dépouillé, où l’on a raté une occasion de nous montrer un coin de ces fameux « déserts de la Lousiane », qui n’existent que dans cet opéra.

Le principal atout que les deux enregistrements ont en commun est la présence, au pupitre, de James Levine, qui n’a jamais caché son admiration pour l’œuvre et son impatience de la faire mieux connaître. Il est instructif de constater à quel point tant sa conception de la partition que sa maîtrise de son métier ont évolué sur trois décennies. En 1980, sa direction, certainement, était plus fougueuse, plus passionnée, mais aussi moins subtile. Aujourd’hui il s’attache davantage aux détails qu’il distingue soigneusement de la masse orchestrale avec un doigté qui est devenu comme une seconde nature. Trop de doigté peut-être. Son deuxième acte, en tout cas, a déçu, de même que l’intermezzo qui précède l’acte suivant. Se pourrait-il que la partition, trop souvent dirigée, trop familière, commence à l’ennuyer?

Par contre, on se félicitera du fait que, cette fois-ci, le maestro ait accordé davantage de soin à la distribution des rôles secondaires, notamment à celui, assez ample, d’Edmondo, au premier acte. Le prestataire du rôle en 1980, et dont on taira le nom par charité, était à peine audible. Son successeur de 2008, Sean Panikkar, sans être transcendant, est de loin supérieur, et pourrait être promis à un bel avenir de ténor lyrique. Ont également droit à des médailles l’allumeur de lampadaires, Tony Stevenson, qui a fait bien davantage impression que son prédécesseur de 1980, et le maître de danse, Bernard Fitch, qui a su conférer un relief inhabituel à son emploi de comprimario en le dotant d’une parodie d’accent français très réussie.

Dwayne Croft (Lescaut) et Dale Travis (Geronte) sont de vieux routiers qui savent comment se glisser dans la peau d’un personnage pour ensuite l’ajuster à leur façon. Croft, très en voix cet après-midi, était le parfait roué, aussi méprisable que séduisant. Travis n’était peut-être pas en aussi bonne forme, mais cela ne l’a pas empêché de tirer tous les effets voulus des bouffonneries de son personnage.

Venons-en aux deux principaux chanteurs...

On se demande quel diablotin a pu suggérer à Mme Mattila l’idée de chanter la Manon de Puccini, rôle auquel rien, semble-t-il, ne la destinait. Non seulement a-t-elle le faciès d’une Gretchen plutôt que d’une Manon, mais elle a aussi l’âge de la sœur aînée de la mère de son personnage. Et pourtant, une fois sur scène, elle fait preuve d’une telle sincérité, d’une telle intensité, d’un tel talent de comédienne qu’elle réussit presque à triompher de ces obstacles, ainsi que de quelques gros plans peu charitables. Là où elle y parvient peut-être un peu moins, c’est au deuxième acte, où certains de ses efforts pour incarner une petite écervelée tombent carrément dans la niaiserie. Par contre, au dernier acte, où le facteur âge ne compte plus vraiment, elle emporte la conviction et, faisant appel aux ressources qu’elle a appris à faire fructifier au contact de Wagner, Janáček et Strauss, du coup transforme ce qui, trop souvent, n’est qu’un épilogue plus ou moins ennuyeux en un minidrame passionnant et quasi autonome, une sorte d’Erwartung vériste. À ce moment, et rien qu’à ce moment-là, je la préfère (oserai-je l’avouer ?) même à Renata Scotto, la Manon de 1980, pourtant une puccinienne consommée, ce que Karita Mattila n’est pas et ne sera jamais.

Mais qu’à cela ne tienne. Il y a des paris, même condamnés d’avance, qu’il vaut la peine de tenir au vu de certains des résultats. C’est le cas de la Manon de Mattila.

Marcello Giordani (des Grieux) est un artiste d’une grande intelligence et parfaitement au fait des difficultés de son rôle. Ce dernier est assez lourd, techniquement difficile et quelque peu composite, comme c’est souvent le cas dans les premiers essais de composition d’un futur grand maître. Non seulement le chanteur est-il, comme Manon d’ailleurs, confronté à des masses orchestrales qui, par moments, menacent de l’engloutir, mais le style vocal de ce qu’on lui demande de chanter tend à varier d’un acte à l’autre. L’approche de Giordani, comme il s’en est lui-même franchement expliqué dans un entracte, consiste à faire fond sur sa formation de belcantiste pour ensuite s’investir pleinement dans les passages qui mettent en valeur sa voix de lirico spinto. Sans doute le chanteur, qui n’a pas les moyens d’un Pavarotti, se ménage-t-il un peu au début, en prévision des défis des actes subséquents, mais lorsque le moment vient de montrer de quoi il est capable, il se dépense sans compter. Il sait également faire preuve d’esprit chevaleresque, au point d’appuyer discrètement, avec puissance et retenue, sa prima donna chaque fois que celle-ci risque de s’exposer un peu trop, en particulier dans leurs scènes d’intimité du deuxième acte. Quant à sa conception du rôle, j’avouerai que je la préfère à celle de Domingo. Tandis que ce dernier concevait des Grieux comme un jeune possédé à peine plus responsable de ses actes que sa Manon, le des Grieux de Giordani sait parfaitement qu’il agit comme un imbécile, sauf qu’il est incapable de faire autrement.

-Pierre Marc Bellemare

Le prochain simulcast du Met aura lieu le 15 mars prochain. On présentera alors Peter Grimes de Benjamin Britten.

> Lire : Critique en anglais par Joseph So

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Met in HD: Manon Lescaut

Puccini's third opera and his first major success, Manon Lescaut had its premiere in 1893. Although its popularity isn't quite on the same level of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, this opera has earned a rightful place in the standard repertoire. For me, it represents verismo at its best. If you are a tenor fan, you'll love his four arias and the extended Act Two duet. And of course the title role has been a great vehicle for many a spinto soprano the likes of Tebaldi and Olivero. Indeed this piece demands great voices and strong stage personalities. I remember the last time the COC did it, the soprano (who shall remain nameless) was so singularly lacking in vocal allure and dramatic verisimilitude that the performance fell totally flat. The audience responded with the most tepid applause I've experienced at the COC. To be sure, great Manon Lescauts don't grow on trees. Even the Met had not staged this opera for eighteen years, the last time with Mirella Freni. So there was considerable excitement and interest over the current revival.

I am happy to report that the Met's revial is a triumph. First, it is cast from strength, with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role. Since her win in the first Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Mattila has built her enviable reputation first in Mozart, then in the German and Slavic operatic repertoire, as a great Eva, Elsa, Jenufa, Katya, Lisa, Tatyana, Arabella, Salome, and Leonore. In more recent years, she also had success as Elisabetta and Amelia, and she is one of the most glamorous Hanna Glawari one is ever going to encounter on the opera stage. But Puccini? I was among the skeptics as to whether Puccini would be a good fit for her, since her Nordic sound with its cool timbre and relatively "straight tone" would not seem ideal in the "blood and guts" verismo genre. She defied the critics by singing Manon Lescaut in her native Finland to great acclaim in 1999, and more recently she has scored a triumph in this role in San Francisco and Chicago. Partnering her on this Met revival is Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, who is having a big season there as Pinkerton, Romeo, Ernani, and Des Grieux. Rounding out the cast is American baritones Dwayne Croft as the callous brother Lescaut and character baritone Dale Travis as Geronte.

Seen and heard on Saturday Feb. 16 at the Sheppard Grande, this Manon Lescaut proved to be another big success. Three cinemas were totally sold out, but I was told by Greg the manager that the upcoming Boheme is so popular that it will be shown in no less than four cinemas, and tickets are going fast. Unlike last season when the signal was hit or miss, the satellite feed this year is much more reliable. Other than a little problem with the subtitles at the very beginning, and a six-second glitch of distorted picture and loss of sound - thankfully occuring after "In quelle trine morbide"! - the transmission was flawless. I give credit to Sheppard Grande for being so organized when it comes to crowds. At intermission, theatre staff were positioned in strategic locations in the washrooms to ensure proper traffic flow. Cinemas were spotless, and the newly built concession a nice addition. However, the highly perishable sandwiches (chicken caesar wrap, tuna salad etc.) were sitting on the counter while they should instead be refigerated - a potential food safety issue.

This quarter-century old production of Manon Lescaut appears to have undergone some refurbishing. It still looks fine, with Act Two particularly sumptuous. With a live audience AND a movie audience, the balancing act to satisfy both can be tricky. In the house, one is used to large gestures so those sitting in the gallery can still see what is going on. Heavy make-up is the order of the day, lest singers' faces will look washed out to those sitting at the back. But such exaggerated acting and heavy make-up would look ridiculous at closeup, in High Definition no less! So I think both were considerably toned down for the benefit of the camera. At intermission, Mattila casually mentioned that she is 47. She remains remarkably youthful, but there is no point in pretending that she is the embodiment of a teenage Manon, especially when closeups cameras are so unforgiving when it comes to her wrinkled forehead. Still, all is forgiven when one encounters such exceptional vocalism. No, hers is not a particularly Italianate sound, but it didn't matter on this afternoon. Her two high Cs and loads of Bs on this occasion were thrilling. It made up for her relatively weak middle and lower ranges. Her Manon is also dramatically nuanced, vulnerable and sympathetic. As Des Grieux, Giordani may look a bit mature to be a young student, and his singing wasn't particularly elegant. But he was an ardent Des Grieux, with a completely secure high register. Act One was a bit slow - it always is in this opera, but gathered momentum in Act Two. By the last two acts, Mattila and Giordani burned up the stage and they received a well deserved ovation. American baritone Dwyane Croft was good if a little anonymous in the rather thankless role of Lescaut. Dale Travis, whom I saw last summer as an unimpressive Don Alfonso in a Santa Fe Cosi fan Tutte, was excellent as Geronte, a character role. Perhaps the greatest revelation on this afternoon was the conducting of James Levine. Not known as a Puccini conductor (despite his professed love for Puccini at the intermission chat), Levine's best work has been reserved for Wagner, Strauss and Verdi. So it came as a complete surprise how committed and involved he was in an opera he had not touched in more than twenty years. His conducting on this afternoon had all the passion and excitement one could possibly want, drawing torrents of sound from the orchestra at the climaxes.

There you have it. Perhaps not a Manon Lescaut for the ages, but overall a very satisfying performance on a wintry afternoon.

> Pierre Bellemare's review [in French]

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