Karita Mattila Performs Manon Lescaut

These they wore in whatever production of the specific opera
happened to be on the boards ó this was before operas were set in eras
other than those intended. The gaudiest items in the collection belonged to
the ladies of ailing repute: Violetta (the two party scenes) and Manon ó
either Manon, Act III, or Manon Lescaut, Act II. Tiny,
exquisite Bidu Say„o had the most glorious Manon costume ó pink silk with
a front of cabbage roses of different hues, each one created from sewn
sequins. (Her Violetta Act I wasnít bad either ó crimson velvet, dripping
with gold beads.) But Licia Albaneseís Manon Lescaut was at least their
equal: cream silk brocade with, at the neck, the heads of peacocks sewn in
glass jewels, their silver necks descending the length of the cloak to spread
their tails ó all glass jewels ó over the side panels. Rivalry? Nonsense
ó the ladies were great friends. Besides, Say„o wisely never attempted any Puccini part but Mimi.

So it is too bad that the Met has clothed Karita Mattilaís Manon Lescaut
in the same off-white shmatta used in Desmond Heeleyís production for every
other diva who has sung in it: Scotto, Freni, Cruz-Romo, Zylis-Gara. These
are ladies with distinctive individual style; it would have added to the
occasion to allow them to choose a look as well. But in the Heeley
production, the Act II gown has to become its duplicate in Act III, when a
bedraggled, imprisoned Manon is still wearing it after her disgrace, and a
still more battered version in Act IV, when she perishes in the colonies.
This is a pity, as Mattila sets her own special stamp on this ó as on every
ó role, and as anyone who has ever seen her in recital can tell you, this
strikingly beautiful woman certainly knows how to dress. (As anyone who saw
her Salome can tell you, she knows how to undress too.)

Her singing, happily, is hers. It is not Italianate ó as everyone has
already pointed out. Her voice is cool for Puccini. Never mind: it is such a
beautiful voice, and of such quality and richness, so technically finished
(she even tosses off a perfect casual trill during the flirtations of Act
II), so intense in Manonís later despairs, so light and naÔve in Act I
that I, for one, forgive her everything: I canít think of any other soprano
these days whom I would rather hear in this part. (This is not true of, say,
Tosca and Turandot, with which she is experimenting back
home in Finland ó I donít think her voice would suit the hysterics of the
one, the cruel tessitura of the other. I wish she would sing
Arabella or Vitellia or Emilia Marty here instead.) The only falling
off ó and it may have been a result of pushing herself through ìIn quelle
trine morbideî ó came during Act IIís passionate duet with Marcello
Giordaniís Des Grieux, where she seemed unable to summon the sheer sensual
voice this scene requires.

All this is to say nothing of her acting ó her observant wonder in the
inn courtyard, her teenage kicking of her heels over her head (try this at
47, ladies) as she sings of her boredom in Geronteís bedchamber, her wholly
credible extinction, when the gorgeous phrases Puccini gave, unrealistically,
to a girl dying of thirst, seemed to be her heart and life force expelling
their last gasps. Opera isnít real; itís more than real;
thatís the point.

I saw Mattilaís Manon Lescaut in Chicago two seasons back, in a
production that gave her more scope to create character in Act I, but also
gave her Vladimir Galouzine for a partner ó an exciting singing actor with
no notion of how to produce Italian line. The Met has provided Marcello
Giordani, who is in his element, an ardent actor blooming lustily into
exquisite anguish in the higher register as every good Italian lover should.
If only heíd sung this way in Lucia last fall ó but bel canto is
not the ideal fach for this singer; Puccini, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer
and verismo are his meat. Good to have him back where he belongs.

Dwayne Croft, so stiff when he plays leading men, is gratifyingly
restrained in the often over-camped part of Manonís slimy brother. (As Tom
Lehrer put it, ìDonít solicit for your sister ó thatís not nice ó
unless you get a good percentage of her price.î) Dale Travis is imposingly
self-absorbed as her rich old lover ó we credit both his simpers and his
malice. Sean Panikkar makes a charming Edmondo but does not steal the scene
from Des Grieux, as a great Edmondo can. Tony Stevenson sings the lamplighter
well ó but is he so busy singing that he needs an assistant to actually
light the lamps? Heís supposed to toss the air off as he goes about his
lonely job.

James Levine returns with every evidence of delight to this most blooming,
most constantly delicious of Puccini scores; it frisks and sighs and bounces
under his touch. Gina Lapinski is credited with restaging the show (which has
not been shown in some twenty years), and she has come up with some neat
touches ó Geronte, having been humiliated with a mirror by Manon,
vengefully holds it up to her own face at the end of Act II ó but the crowd
could make way a bit more effectively when Mattila alights from her coach in
Act I. In Chicago we noticed her the moment she appeared, she riveted the
busy stage, and she looked like a curious, impulsive teenager. At the Met,
there is such clutter ó we do not at first pay any attention to her.

Manon Lescaut appears to be the tawdry story of a very young and
shallow girl who canít decide between love and luxury, and dies for her
sins in the ìdesert of Louisiana.î Actually, it is the far more exciting
story of a young genius of 35 who finds himself (in the desert of Lombardy)
as an opera composer: it was Pucciniís third, his first triumph, and it
convinced Verdi (among others) that he was the hope of Italian opera. Its
floods of melody will delight in any decent performance, in scene after
memorable scene, to the point that we deliriously ignore the awkward
dramaturgy (expressly concocted to avoid the high points of Massenetís and
Auberís versions of the story). It is the more ironic, then, that the
wayward heroine expires of thirst in all this juicy Italianit·.
Itís a glum moment, but you canít be depressed when your ear is still
ringing with a dozen such irresistible tunes. Manon may be a corpse, but
Pucciniís future and fortune were assured.

On his deathbed, they say, thirty years later, Puccini begged his friends
not to forget Manon. Weíd probably hear Manon Lescaut
more often if we did not have Mimi and Tosca and Butterfly grabbing the stage
time. Their stories are more clearly told and dramatic stories,
itís true, but I weary of their calculated coups de thÈ‚tre. Iíd rather
hear Manon than any of the others; I appreciate her return after long absence
ó especially if a soprano and tenor arrive with the voices to put stars in
my ears, and whose acting makes me believe for a moment that they are a pair
of adolescent fools.

John Yohalem

image_description=Karita Mattila – credit Lauri Eriksson
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
The Metopolitan Opera (Performance of 1 February 2008)
product_by=Manon Lescaut: Karita Mattila; Des Grieux: Marcello Giordani; Lescaut: Dwayne Croft; Geronte: Dale Travis; Edmondo: Sean Panikkar; Lamplighter: Tony Stevenson. Conducted by James Levine.
product_id=Above: Karita Mattila (photo by Lauri Eriksson)