This Manon's beauty is only skin deep

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 2/1/2008
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

Puccini described his creative process to the American journalist and critic, Arthur M. Abell: “God makes the tree grow, but man, if he wants to build a house, must cut it down and saw it into boards. It is the same with a composer.” In Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, we discover timber of a higher quality than was used in his earlier Le Villi and Edgar, and although it sometimes lacks the characteristic dramatic tightness and flow oflater works, there is much musical brilliance, especially notable in the orchestral sequences and the arias of des Grieux.

From the opening measures of this performance, one became aware of the particularly opulent tone, uncomfortably similar to a movie sound track, that James Levine draws from his orchestra. The effect is buoyant and grand, reminding one of a ship at full sail, but there is the perennial drawback that in spite of his redoubtable facility, the conductor seems aloof from the dramatic core of the music, observing it, rather than being involved in it.

Mattila as Manon Lescaut, Giordani as des Grieux

Mattila as Manon Lescaut, Giordani as des Grieux

Marcello Giordani, who, purely from the standpoint of vocal quality, is perhaps the best dramatic Italian tenor on the roster, delivered his arias and dialogues with authentic style and beauty of tone. He is rather a pleasantly old fashioned singer, in this pleasantly old fashioned production, and portrayed des Grieux, a far less complex character, than Manon, with genuine ardor and, most admirable of all, with simplicity.  His spirited singing of “Donna non vidi mai”, palpably ignited the cast, as sometimes happens, and lifted them at that point to a higher artistic level for the remainder of the evening.

Dwayne Croft played the role of Manon’s disarming and lighthearted scoundrel brother with élan and effortless singing, a contrast to his rather stiff and vocally tenuous performances of Germont earlier in the season.

Karita Mattila’s voice is not suited to the Italian repertoire. Although the middle range is sometimes beautiful, it is neither sumptuous nor supple and does not lend itself to the demands of a Puccini heroine. She shares some characteristics reminiscent of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, as, for example, a more instrumental than vocal sound that generally becomes thin as it ascends. Similarly, one finds the purity of Italian pronunciation alloyed, as in the case of the very essential vowel “ah,” which is not in Mattila’s phonetic vocabulary, and is replaced generally by “uh,” a sound that does not exist in the Italian language. Furthermore, the listener senses that the heroine, Manon, has been deftly analyzed, and the musical outcome, again reminiscent of Schwarzkopf, appears to be a product of the brain rather than collaboration of brain and heart. 

As an actress, her playing the ingénue in the first act, and the agitated young lover in the second, were quite compelling, but in the wastelands of New Orleans, where the dramatic demands become more severe, Mattila was no longer convincing. Musically she proved unable to deliver the secure top fortes so vital to the dramatic shape of the opera, and was forced, at the end of the first act duet, to hide behind the tenor’s sustained A flat, which she sings at the octave.  Later she ventured a stylized shriek at the climax of “sola, perduta, abandonata” (also only an A flat), when solid singing – without compromise – was absolutely necessary. There is a beautiful passage in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark where she describes a particular singer’s power to convey sincerity and simplicity. She justly observes that this is a supremely profound and rare gift. If the Manon Lescaut of the evening had this power, many of the shortcomings mentioned above would be gladly overlooked.