Monday, April 04, 2016

Two Puccinis

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 3/8/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

Madama Butterfly - Metropolitan Opera, 4/2/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Zifchak, Croft / Chichon

The end of Manon Lescaut's run here was less awful than its beginning. No, the production didn't get any more palatable (and I should mention, as I didn't last time, that the couple ending up in a bombed-out version of their initial meeting spaces further misreads the linear progression of the story into a circular one), but Roberto Alagna had worked himself up to singing des Grieux more respectably. This, unfortunately, made Kristine Opolais's lack of success more evident. Her Manon won't even look at des Grieux, much less engage emotionally with him.

But her Butterfly works. Her interpersonal affect is still relatively chilly - not reserved, as would befit the young Japanese girl, but oddly disengaged - and so the first act is the least engaging. The next acts, however, play more to her strengths. Here Butterfly's emotional course is set - a full-throated longing reversed on itself - and backed up by pit and production. So the energy and full-force sound (most expressive in its middle) Opolais pretty easily maintains through this arc becomes an unmissable virtue, and the lack of expressive detail (musical or physical), fatal to her Manon Lescaut (who must fascinate), becomes secondary.

Alagna, too, is helped by the specifics of this later Puccini opera. Pinkerton just isn't as strenuous a sing as (Puccini's) des Grieux, nor is the relatively unvaried vocal color he shows even at his strongest these days particularly missed in this role. It's a bit odd for the American soldier to be significantly shorter than his Japanese teenage bride, but Alagna does convey Pinkerton's youthful carelessness quite well. (In fact, given Opolais's characteristically imprecise acting, he often seems younger than Butterfly!) Meanwhile, it seems like Dwayne Croft has been singing Sharpless forever, and his account is as admirably humane as always.

The main thing that changed since Manon Lescaut, though, is the quality of the production. There's really no such thing as a performer-proof show, but this first and only Met production of Anthony Minghella has proven pretty close. As long as the singers are working with the opera and not against it, the images and framing of the production tell its story in stark, powerful form. And whether the principals pay attention to detail or not, the setting's little touches are preserved in the character parts - and the odd but distinctive movements of the puppet son.

Debuting conductor Karel Mark Chichon kept everything moving in the right direction and with the right proportions, but wasn't particularly outstanding. The credit for this event's success seems principally to be Minghella's.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.