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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Manon Lescaut - Karita Mattila (soprano); Lescaut, Manon’s brother and Sergeant in the Kings Guard - Dwayne Croft (baritone); Cavalier des Grieux, a student - Marcello Giordani (tenor); Geronte, wealthy Treasurer-General - Dale Travis (bass); Edmondo, a student - Sean Pannikar (tenor)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine.
Stage Director: Gina Lapinski.
Set and costumes design: Desmond Heeley
Lighting: Gil Wechsler
Video director: Brian Large
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 16 February 2008
Picture format: Region Free NTSC/Colour/19:9. High Definition
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Booklet essay and synopsis in English. French and German translations are included on the DVD
Menu language: English. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
includes backstage interviews conducted by Renée Fleming


Experience Classicsonline

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had, to say the least of it, a difficult gestation. For the composer who had enticed another man’s wife to live with him, it was make or break time after his first two operas. These were Le villi premiered on 31 May 1884, and Edgar at La Scala on 21 April 1889, each only modestly received. He couldn’t settle with the chosen librettists who were changed to the extent that none put his name to the programme at the premiere. Being aware of these difficulties and that La Scala was to premiere Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, shortly after the scheduled premiere of Manon Lescaut, the publisher Ricordi moved the venue to Turin. Despite these last minute tribulations the work was a resounding success. The applause began with the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 (Ch. 4) when Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge the applause. At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty curtain calls. Manon Lescaut set Puccini on a secure financial and artistic future. Whilst not rivalling La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly among Puccini’s most popular works it has all the hallmarks of his compositional style. It also sports a fraught emotional story including a typically passionate melodic aria for the heroine.

This DVD derives from a live performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera given in 2008 as part of the theatre’s live performances beamed around the world for simultaneous transmission in local cinemas. Figures quoted for the 2007-08 season indicate around 350,000 people experienced the performances. Recorded in High Definition, it certainly lacks nothing in visual purity and clarity as transferred to a modern flat screen television. The sound is also first rate through my hi-fi system and reference speakers. The sets go back to 1980 when the production was new and attributed to Gian-Carlo Menotti. His name doesn’t appear this time around; instead Gina Lapinski is shown as Stage Director. The original production, featured Renata Scotto as the eponymous Manon and Domingo as Des Grieux each at the peak of their considerable acting and vocal powers. By coincidence it was the first Met recording for television transmission. The opera itself is in effect a series of four unconnected tableaux from Manon’s life. They portray her passage from the flighty girl of act 1, to Geronte’s rich self-centred mistress of act 2, through to her deportation and death in the barren plains near New Orleans in the final two acts. In my review of the 1980 original, I commented on the opulent sets and production. These were typical and traditional at the Met of that period. I also pointed out the limitations of the colour of the early transmission. As I have already indicated there are no such limitations here.

By coincidence, both Karita Mattila as Manon in this performance and Renata Scotto in the earlier, were around the same age, 46, at the time of the respective recordings. However, whilst Scotto was queen of the Italian repertoire at the Met in the 1970s and early 1980s, Mattila is known more at the theatre in the north European fach. She has sung Richard Strauss’s Salome and Beethoven’s Fidelio Leonore previously. What both singers share is a considerable ability as singing actresses. Mattila didn’t take the role of Manon into her repertoire until 1999, perhaps having waited for a more lustrous tone to develop in her voice. Her acted interpretation here cannot be faulted and if she lacks the ultimate in Italianate tone there are few on the present day operatic stage who could have given such a convincingly sung and acted portrayal in this large theatre. Her singing of Sola, perduta, abbandonata in act 4 (Ch. 36), whilst recumbent, and ethereal mezza voce projected into the vast auditorium that is The Met, is operatic performance of the highest quality. Equally impressive are her expressive and floated notes, with a concluding diminuendo, in In quelle trine morbide (Ch.16) before singing full out in Pouché tu vuoi saper, the following duet with Des Grieux (Ch.17). Add to these singing skills the fact that in act 2, as Manon is being taught to dance as befits a lady, she concludes the lesson by doing the splits! Mattila’s recumbent position in the final aria contrasts sharply with Scotto’s who stands much earlier. Those differences are also reflected in the lighting level in the last act. In this performance the stage is brightly lit whilst in the 1980 recording the pervading darkness, with focused spots, adds to the barrenness of the locale. Whilst there are many such differences they are of little importance in assessing this DVD.

The singing and acting of the three male principals is more varied. As Des Grieux, Marcello Giordani is no match, as singer or actor, for Domingo. In the bonus interview he claims lineage from the bel canto repertoire, but fails to bring much soft singing or smooth legato to this role. In the opening act he is dry-voiced and when singing full out his tone inclines to spread. He can and does sing with expression and manages some soft singing in the act 2 love duet (Ch.21). When it comes to acting with manner and voice Dale Travis as Geronte is way ahead of his male counterparts in giving a wholly convincing portrayal. In act 1 he is the impatient, irascible, banker to a tee as he arrives at the inn (Ch.6) only transformed when his eyes light on Manon and he makes his plot to abduct her. In act 2 Travis’s expression of besotted affection during Manon’s dancing lesson is superb (Ch.20) as later is his conveying of anger as Geronte discovers Des Grieux and Manon in flagrante in his sumptuous apartments and denounces her to the police (Chs. 22-24). Dwayne Croft as brother, pimp, gambler and general fixer is at least upright in physical stature and sings in tune if without particular tonal distinction. On the rostrum, Levine, now with a stool on which to perch, is a replica of 1980 in terms of tempi and interpretation. His fondness for the repertoire, and years of experience, has enabled him to overcome the effect of his accident and to fill this music with a fine balance of lyricism and dramatic passion as would surely have pleased Puccini.

The bonus of having the svelte and glamorous Renée Fleming conduct back-stage interviews is a mixed blessing. Those with the two principal singers are bland; doubtless they would have preferred a direct line to their dressing rooms. Those with the stage manager and animal keepers are more interesting. I could not help feeling that seeing the sets moved into position took some of the magic away from the view when seen from the front. As always, Brian Large’s camera work is a subtle blend that brings the best of an opera house performance into ones lounge, or in this case onto a cinema screen near you.

For clarity of picture this DVD wins hands down compared with the 1980 version. The downside is that as good as Mattila is as Manon, she alone is not equal to the combination of Scotto and Domingo those years ago.

Robert J Farr


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