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Subject: a very wrong performance / production
From: kurt youngmann <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:kurt youngmann <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 6 Jul 2017 14:50:52 -0500
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Having deliberately avoided any exposure to last year’s Met Manon Lescaut (I neither listened to the broadcast nor attended the HD telecast nor did I read any reviews) I can almost say that I approached the chance of seeing a DVD of the performance with an open mind. Almost… But not quite since I vigorously oppose mucking about with original versions of operas - especially when utilizating such incongruous alterations of time as this production. Okay, so maybe Manon isn’t as time specific as Norma (LOC did a production back in the 80s that transposed the action from 50 BCE Gaul to Napoleonic era France when there were precious few Druids in the land) or Tosca (which takes place specifically on 17 June 1800) or Salome (circa 30 CE). But having someone sent across the Atlantic to the “desert of Louisiana” aboard a Nazi ship during the height of World War II is about as ludicrous an idea as I’ve ever seen. The English translations in the titles even tried to change a few of the libretto’s words to fit the action. One of my many quirks is that I look for some dramatic truth in opera libretti, even I must say, in the much-maligned Il Trovatore. (Yes, if one digs into such aspects of the story as Azucena’s madness, there are cogent reasons for what happens).

I admit that the first performance of this opera I saw may have spoiled me for just about anything that came later: the Manon was Renata Tebaldi, the des Grieux was Jussi Bjoerling and Carlo Badioli (just about my all-time favorite basso buffo) was Geronte. Oh yes, the conductor wasn’t too bad either: Tullio Serafin!

Whether it was the director’s fault or that of Kristine Opolais or a combination of the two, the depiction of Manon struck me as entirely wrong! I see her as a naive young girl, alone (her brother is too busy drinking and gambling to pay much attention to her) and confused, who finds herself confronted by an attractive young man who “turns her head” as the saying goes. Her character in the second act is, I believe, overwhelmed by all the splendors surrounding her. She’s bored. She doesn’t feel any attraction for Geronte. And she still loves des Grieux and genuinely misses him. Ms. Opolais plays her as a worldly-wise woman even though she’s really still an inexperienced teenager from the country. The degree of sophistication in this characterization is, well, totally out of character. I’m not going to go into a point-by-point list of everything that happens in that act but I did quite a bit of squirming over the interpretation. As for Opolais’ singing, I find an unpleasant harshness that doesn’t match what the young Manon should sound like. The only way this characterization could have worked would be if Manon is a hooker who’s been around the block a few times.

The other major gripe I have is the portrayal of Geronte. I see him as an old fart - somewhat pathetic. Whenever I’ve seen this opera before, he’s been played by a basso buffo. It’s not that he doesn’t feel wronged and hurt when he discovers that his mistress is cheating on him - he does, and rightly so. Rather I see the guy more as being in over his head with a live-in squeeze who’s so much younger than he is. From his first entrance this Geronte is too cunning and crafty.

Des Grieux’s and Lescaut’s characters were left as they should be for the first part. (Although it was somewhat illogical to portray Lescaut wearing a suit and tie while referencing his living in a barracks.

I watched this DVD with several other people who enjoyed the performance and didn’t see all the flaws (real or imagined) that I objected to. Our host, a seasoned opera-goer, had only seen one performance of the opera so I don’t believe he has all that much familiarity with it. As for the other two attendees, I had never met one before and the one I watch opera with frequently is only a casual opera person.

Kurt Youngmann

"Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known." - Michel de Montaigne


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