Monday, November 20, 2006
Puccini's early opera "Manon Lescaut" opened a 7-performance run November 18th at a San Francisco Opera Sunday matinee.
Though the music is continuously interesting, the opera has to be one of the dumber pieces in the operatic repertory, and that's saying something. The original eighteenth-century novel by Abbe Prevost was probably quite interesting, painting a corrupt French society through the tale of a good girl on her way to the convent who goes bad, and then who gets punished way out of proportion to her actual misdeeds. Think "Moll Flanders," but tragic.
The French composer Massenet's greatest opera is his 19th century treatment of the same tale, and in that version the story sort of makes sense, but the Puccini version is a ridiculous mixture of highlights from the Prevost novel and the composer's own obsession with pathetic, masochistic, dying women.
The reason to see this production is on account of the superstar diva, the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila who is in her prime and who can seemingly sing anything beautifully. She is also a wonderful actress, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from this production where she appears as a Zombie Ingenue in Act One, an Idiot Kept Woman in Act Two, and a Dingbat Victim in Acts Three and Four.
The first act is supposed to be set at a country inn populated by students, gamblers, townsfolk and so on, but in this production you can't tell if the scene is supposed to be inside or outside, and the stage is so continuously busy it starts to look like Grand Central Station, except that everybody is dressed in beige outfits. That is, except for one weird guy who turns out to be the tenor, who is dressed in blue just so you'll know he's The Romantic Hero. I'm not sure how the scene could be staged intelligently, but the solution here seemed to be "keep it moving at all costs" and it screamed "OperaLand!"
The first act also had to contend with the Sean Panikkar effect (that's Sean above). He's a young Sri Lankan in the Adler Fellows program who keeps being given tiny parts that are usually the companion, the friend, the herald, what have you, and the problem is that his voice is so youthful, lyrical and beautiful, that the star tenor's entrace is usually a disappointment in comparison. This happened last year in both "Norma" and "Maid of Orleans." In the latter, his victim was Misha Didyk, the Ukranian tenor who is also singing the lead in "Manon Lescaut." Misha was fine on Sunday, even though he oversang at times, but we wanted to hear Sean!
The second act jumps in Time and Place to Paris, where Manon is bored with her glamorous life in the boudoir at the palace where she's being kept by a rich old aristocrat. There's an endless dance instruction scene where Mattila has been instructed to be gauche and clumsy, I suppose to show that she has no real class, but the scene doesn't work, possibly because Ms. Mattila is way too elegant and beautiful to be doing Lucy Ricardo very convincingly.
The third act at the prison in Le Havre was probably the best staging, with a dozen supernumerary women being led out one by one to be branded before being thrown onto a ship headed for The New World (in other words, Louisiana in the 18th century). There aren't that many supernumerary parts for women at the opera (big scenes are usually filled out by male soldiers, courtiers and clergy), so when juicy parts like these arrive, the ladies go at them with relish. The scene was effective and the inevitable overacting was kept to a minimum except for Branded Woman Number Seven or Number Eight who was so over-the-top that the balcony standees all started laughing. (Note to Overacting Super Woman: There is a tender love duet going on between the principals to your left while your arms and legs are thrashing every which way, which is sorta distracting.)
There were curtain calls before each intermission, which used to be standard practice at the San Francisco Opera, but which hasn't existed for years. I'm curious why it's made a comeback, and a clumsy one at that. The ushers were all opening the doors in the orchestra section at the end of Act One while a hysterical supervisor was stage-whispering, "No, No, there are curtain calls!"
I last saw this opera in a disastrous 1974 production at the San Francisco Opera with Leontyne Price, who was not only unbelievable as a French coquette but who was unintentionally pure camp. And how could she not be, since the opera ends in "The Desert of Louisiana," where Manon sings her dying aria "Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata" which translates as "Alone, Lost, and Abandoned." The latter isn't even strictly true since her poor young lover has gone mad and joined her in exile to The New World. Too bad they they left the bayous and somehow stumbled into the desert.
Oh well, the audience seemed to enjoy every minute of the schlock, and Ms. Mattila is worth seeing and hearing no matter what she does, even sola, perduta, e abbandonata.