Saturday, March 05, 2016

The decorator

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 2/12/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

It will perhaps be common opinion that this new production of Puccini's first great masterpiece fell apart with the late cancellation of tenor Jonas Kaufmann. But in fact I suspect it was doomed much earlier than that, specifically when director Richard Eyre came to the conclusion that
"Manon is not an innocent" at the beginning of the opera[...] "I've always thought that she's getting sent to the convent by her father, because she's been with too many boys in the village, and she's getting a reputation."
(From William Berger's preview piece in the current Playbill.) This choice, though reasonable as psychological extrapolation, led Eyre's production fatally astray in several different ways.

First, shifting Manon's nature at the start of the action to better account for what's later breaks the structure of the story. This opera, like all of Puccini's, is an artfully constructed work, perhaps his most profound. As I wrote at the previous Met staging:
Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it not only over the sea but thereby, in the fourth act, beyond human society altogether. The effect is perhaps not even as "Italian" as it is modern -- at least as remarkably so as the Wagnerian influence on the score.

Puccini and his gaggle of librettists and script doctors -- who here assembled perhaps (along with La Forza del Destino) the most unfairly-maligned libretto in the canon -- set up the contrast of this "desert" finale with an extraordinary set of three preceding acts. They do not, of course, tell a thorough story (only Acts II and III straightforwardly follow each other, and it's in this least eventful gap that Puccini put the opera's intermezzo). But each enacts the characteristic action of the opera (and maybe of opera itself) -- Manon becoming, as she needs, the center of an attentive crowd -- in ever-less-innocent (and ever-more-striking) form. Puccini repeatedly and memorably juxtaposes the soloists' own expressions (particularly Manon's) with a watchful chorus' background. He of course used the chorus in other memorable ensembles later, but never as repeatedly and singlemindedly as for Manon Lescaut. When it's wholly gone, at the end, the absence is stunning, almost incomprehensible: in a sense, that's the true (and fatal) desert.
She must be innocent at the beginning, whether that would be likely in a real-life example or not, because Puccini calls back to that innocence as both immediate (in musical echo) and large-scale (in the progression of the acts) contrast. With Opolais's Manon bizarrely vamping even at the initial flight, there's no light to contrast with the greed, desperation, and death that follow.

Second, focusing on Manon's likely psychology ignores Des Grieux's -- and the audience's. He never sees her innocent first love, never witnesses flashes of it on later meetings (though she still sings about it, as the text and music haven't changed), so what keeps him attached to her even as everything else around her becomes wretched? Even worse, why should we in the audience feel sympathy for the comeuppance of a thorough narcissist? The production's only answer seems to be something along the lines of "she's hot".

Third, the lack of contrasting elements gives Kristine Opolais pitifully little to work with. Perhaps a different soprano might have come up with something else to play up, but deprived of her character's most obvious inner conflict Opolais ended up giving the same energetic but joyless one-note stage performance in every act.

*     *     *

Looking more closely at Eyre's direction of Opolais brings us to what may be the main issue: the overall conceit. What surprised me throughout this opening night was how a production that looked so tantalizing in the promotional glimpses could end up so lifeless. The problem, it turns out is that "film noir" is a fruitful conceit for set and costume design ideas, but an empty one for stage direction. You can dress your soprano as an old Hollywood femme fatale, but you can't in any useful way carry over physical presentation from film into an art where singers are seen from a fixed perspective at rather long distance while projecting their voices into a huge, if resonant, space. And yet the incoherent emptiness of the stage interaction suggests that Eyre and his associates were content to limit personal direction to some failed stabs in that direction.

Nor is the directorial failure merely one of doing too little: in the middle acts it's Eyre's additions that step on Puccini's story. The Act II dance lesson is given a hugely cynical treatment, with Manon's admirers, (non-textual) dance partner, the dance, and Geronte himself rendered as unsympathetic lechers. As with Eyre's cynical take on Manon, this is somewhat plausible psychological extrapolation that is contrary to both the opera's text and its sense. For this scene intentionally echoes the audience's own experience of the opera, and to have the viewers - and viewership itself! - therein shown as wholly contemptible and held by the heroine in contempt is pure poison. (In the 2008 run Mattila's irrepressible thrill in their admiration, as shallow as it and they may have been, contrarily made instant sense of Manon's tragedy and evergreen appeal.) Act III is a simpler failure. Here the team had apparently spent so much effort on the costumes and brazenness of the prostitutes that they allowed this business to hide and sideline the here-drab heroine.

We are a long, long way from the ultra-specific acuity of Eyre's Carmen and even Figaro. Perhaps it's just having fewer and less explicit events to work with than in those operas - most of the stuff we remember from Massenet's setting occurs between the acts. But the disparity in attention and achievement between the visual and human sides of the staging - opera as interior decoration - seems all too in line with the characteristic Gelb-era production, from the Lepage Ring to Kentridge's Lulu. There is a skeleton for a successful Manon Lescaut production here... But it would require a full overhaul of all the personenregie, probably without Eyre's involvement.

*     *     *

Musically, Luisi was excellent, as were singers in some of the smaller roles: Brandon Cedel as a Sargeant, Richard Bernstein as the Captain, and debuting 2015 Met Council winner Virginie Verrez, though debuting tenor Zach Borichevsky did not impress. Unfortunately the principals were less satisfying. Opolais was probably the best, but as strong as her well-grounded sound was through its bottom and middle, she went repeatedly flat on higher notes. Massimo Cavalletti was adequate but not particularly appealing, which leaves Roberto Alagna. Alagna's voice can more or less still sustain a weight sufficient for Puccini's Des Grieux, but only at the cost of a monochrome, ugly tone without steadiness or line. To be frank, he sounded finished, and though Gelb's decision to emergency sub Alagna in for the run after Kaufmann's cancellation might have prevented some pre-run ticket returns, it - barring some miracle after the opener - has done everyone a disservice.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.