Monday, July 5, 2010

Reine par la beauté

I'm always surprised by finding events which I'm excited about not sold out at the last minute.  But I was thrilled to be able to walk into the box office of the Teatro dell'Opera on Thursday and get two cheap tickets for Saturday's performance of Massenet's Manon (June 19.)  A note on these back-of-the-house seats: my assumption that "molto alto" in Rome would be just fine for one accustomed to standing at the top of the Met was correct.  The shape of the theater meant we did have to perch straight-backed on the edge of our seats to see the stage at all, but when we did, there was a fine view.  I missed only the very back of the stage... where, as it turned out, some Significant Recurring Themes were being illustrated, but more on that later.

First things first: a Really Shameful Confession is that I keep being surprised by Massenet.  Thais was the first of his operas I came to know, and based on this, and recordings of Manon and Werther where I failed to grasp either depth or subtlety, I had mentally classified his music as a bit... light: lovely, certainly, but tilting dangerously towards the trite and trivial.  I am, of course, recalibrating this opinion.  This January's Werther under Michel Plasson in Paris came as a glorious shock, even on a web stream.  While the Manon I saw in Rome may not have brought out musical and dramatic subtleties to that degree, I did get a sense of its cohesion, charm, and poignancy which had utterly eluded me in recordings.  The charm which is so often attributed to Manon and its eponymous heroine is a charm which I still find more in the music than in the drama.  While the conducting of Alain Guingal may not have brought out all the sparkle and all the irony that general enthusiasm leads me to suspect Manon of coyly hiding, it still enabled me to have many "aha!" moments in seeing how the music was hinting at things to come, reminding me of things past, hanging together, and keeping its momentum.   And I sympathized here with the besotted Des Grieux and the flighty Manon... I actually rooted for their too-insouciant happiness to continue, and felt genuinely sorry for Manon in her artificial splendor.

The cast of the evening was sound, although the chorus sounded at times less confident and less unified than I am used to from the Met crew.  Among the soloists, Roberto Accurso stood out as a chillingly ruthless De Bretigny, as did Paolo Battaglia as a Comte des Grieux of appropriately aristocratic gravitas.  Domenico Balzani was an effectively unsympathetic Lescaut.  While the strength of characterization in smaller roles praised in the recent London production was lacking here, I felt that the mood of frivolous excess was still effectively communicated.  The stage, I felt, was consistently a bit overcrowded with all the villagers, revelers, gamblers, etc., but I quite liked both the restrained set design by Paola Moro and the wildly, magnificently extravagant costuming (update: a few pictures may be found here.)  The stage was kept quite open, a flat gray, with two steps towards the front of the stage and several at the back to create an open space in the central half.  Into this space, then, were introduced the trees and trestle tables of the opening scene, the sensuous boudoir of the love nest, candelabra galore for the outdoors gala where Manon is "reine par la beauté," a lectern and some slightly puzzling, large red velvet drapes for Saint Sulpice, a truly marvelous den of iniquity for the gambling scene (alcoves curtained in black lace! ottomans! filigree-framed mirrors!), and for the last scene, only a blasted tree and some fragmentary classical ruins (alas, transience of life.)  It was only in reading this review afterwards that I discovered that I had missed seeing several mirrors which made the suggestive symbolic resonance of these objects more apparent.  While I'm always sorry to have missed an opportunity to have engaged a director's thoughts, the mirrors I did see did not seem extraneous... the moment where Des Grieux offers a mirror to the dying Manon and she cries that it sparkles like a star was to me a breathtaking indictment of her character.

Annick Massis gave (in my opinion) the strongest performance of the evening.  With lovely phrasing and exquisite diction, she had a light touch, but also managed to communicate Manon's inner doubts where it counted.  "Adieu notre petite table" was irresistibly beautiful.  And she spun coloratura passages like baubles running through Manon's fingers.  Massimo Giordano was her ardent Des Grieux, persuasively impetuous and tender, and vocally very exciting, although I could have wished a touch more dynamic nuance and a touch more sensitivity to the text.  Still, he and Massis made a convincing pair, and played off each other well both vocally and physically.  The confrontation at Saint Sulpice was, as it should be, a breathless crescendo.  "Toi! Vous!" still strikes me as a gorgeously economic way of communicating Des Grieux' agitated state, and "N'est-ce plus ma main?" had all the "here we go again" inevitability it should. And despite the weakness of character of both lovers, I was sufficiently won by the melancholy music of their tragic end to argue for its poignancy even over gelato afterwards.

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