Performances seen: 1/29, 2/9, 2/12
Though she can (as we remember) be very still, there is a nervousness to Karita Mattila that some will never love. In her acting, it's usually compressed for dramatic purposes into the explosions of sound and sense I've called Mattila Moments, but it's ever-audible (or nearly so) in her voice. The listener wishing to luxuriate in an ideal wash of sound finds little purchase: there's too much forward motion in the restless vibrato and dramatically transparent coloration of her instrument. So some will complain that she's not sufficiently "Italianate", though she does a terrific job in this particular opera. Puccini drew his heroine, as just noted, "almost exclusively in extremis" -- which is not to say ever-tortured but always near some decisive near-exaggeration of feeling. Though perhaps not as ideal as Jenufa or Lohengrin, it's a series of good opportunities for Mattila.
For Manon Lescaut is not merely one in extremis but one who draws attention, and Mattila, more than anyone else -- and not least because of that nervousness -- draws one's eyes inexorably to her person. Take the Act II dance lesson, for example: no matter how offhand and insolent her behavior or strong her protestations of boredom, this Manon Lescaut so evidently thrills in their spotlight that the onlookers' rapture makes perfect sense. Isn't the secret of life more life? She, anyway, has it -- is charged with it everywhere -- and flaunts it, for both them and us.
You could say Marcello Giordani has the opposite qualities. As forcefully and committedly as he might sing -- and he's been much better in this run than his last years' average -- with as much Italian tenor sound as he has, he remains, as he was in Lucia, a stolid figure. But Des Grieux has his would-be-sensible side, and so Giordani works in the part.
Fellow tenor (via SFO's Adler Fellowship) Sean Panikkar made his debut as Des Grieux's fellow student in Act I, and showed a clear and easily-produced -- if also somewhat raw -- instrument. Other supporting singers also did well.
But the chorus is the key to this piece, and under first-year-here director Donald Palumbo did terrifically after the first night's tentative Act I. They seemed to follow James Levine's lead in emphasizing elegance and transparency throughout, even in the heated tour-de-force of Act III's roll call scene (which, incidentally, Puccini adopted from the novel's very beginning). Levine is, of course, excellent, and cellist Rafael Figueroa as warm and clear as ever in his solo.
I had not until last night seen the performance of an production just before it was to be movie-cast -- and after this one, I'll likely avoid them in future. It was not a bad experience, but quite aside from the distraction of a front-row camera (with bright monitor) and two pneumatic/hydraulic camera rigs pumping up and down on each side of the stage (an odd, odd sight), the evening had too much of the air of a dress rehearsal. And not merely for its technical preparations: the performers too seemed -- at least until the very end -- not as engaged as I'd seen them, whether from distraction or saving (consciously or not) for the more prominent performance this Saturday afternoon. A good evening, on the whole, but not up to its immediate predecessors.
Incidentally, the actual horse-drawn carriage on which Manon, Geronte, et al. make their Act I entrance was missing from last night's performance. A one-night foul-up or pre-emptive editing to head off possible on-air horse droppings? We'll see.