On paper, the pairing of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila and Italian tenor Marcello Giordani in this DVD of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, filmed live at the Met on 16 February this year, looked extremely promising. Giordani is rarely so comfortable as when he's in lyric lover mode, while I was naturally intrigued to see what so magnetic an actress as Mattila would do with Puccini's take on the Abbé Prévost's melodramatic novel.
In the event, it's a rather tepid, disappointing affair. The first problem lies in Gina Lapinski's production, which has been around the block several times and then some. I'm all for staging opera in the period in which the story is meant to be set, but the problem here is that the production is redolent of the period in which it first appeared. The sets, wigs, costumes and lighting all look their age and do not provide an especially atmospheric background for the story to play against. The action is very self-consciously arranged, with no feeling of spontaneity or momentum, and the stage is often rather cluttered. In my opinion, a much better way to see the same staging is to watch the Deutsche Grammophon DVD from 1980 with Renata Scotto and Plàcido Domingo; and the opera as a whole is better served by the Royal Opera House production, again with Domingo but featuring Kiri Te Kanawa at her most engaged and engaging, plus Thomas Allen in his prime as Lescaut. The Embarkation scene alone is far more gripping than what we have here.
Still, I have to say that the casting of Mattila in the new DVD is far from persuasive. Having marvelled at her ravishing Arabella at Covent Garden a few seasons ago, I was disappointed to hear so much strain in her voice. The top Bs and Cs cause her a lot of trouble, so that the technical challenge tends to override her valiant attempts at expression throughout. The energy, the soaring line and the beauty of tone that this role requires are just not there, which is an enormous shame; Mattila's considerable talents would have been better used in a work more suited to her voice. Something else that I hadn't quite expected is that she would look so physically uncomfortable. Obviously, the soprano is more than double the age Manon is supposed to be, but she seems almost grotesquely costumed and wigged in places; rather than making her look younger, the blonde wig and ornate frock in the second act, for instance, actually age her appearance. Would Geronte really be bothered about her? I don't think so. It comes as no surprise that the two later acts are more successfully performed – Mattila is always the diva sans comparison in a good death scene – but still the vocal reservations remain, and I was unconvinced.
Giordani comes out of it a little better, but he's also far too old and vocally heavy for the role. In the first act, the idea that this is a student, a young poet, is frankly absurd, whilst the singing requires a lot more flexibility than he's able to produce. The more passionate sections are far more persuasive, and he seems on fire in the third act, but again this isn't the most exciting performance I've witnessed from this singer. Nor does Dwayne Croft's serviceable Lescaut come close to knocking Thomas Allen off his pedestal in the same role in the ROH DVD. Paul Plishka's Innkeeper, Dale Travis' Geronte and Sean Panikkar's Edmondo are all fine, however, bringing the drama to life at its edges even if the central relationships are painted with too broad a brush.
In the pit, James Levine improves matters by conducting with equal amounts of calculation and fervour. If the first act is rather dull, Puccini's lush evocation of Manon's apartments brings out the best in the conductor, and I find his ability to judge tempi far better in this performance than in the recent DVD of Macbeth in the same series.
Nevertheless, I don't think this release is anywhere near the kind of quality the Met can produce at its finest; a shame the magnificent revival of Ernani from earlier this year wasn't filmed instead.
EMI's new range of Met Opera DVDs continues with Gheorghiu in Boheme and Domingo in The First Emperor. See here for more information.
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