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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mattila's Vast . . . Tracts o' Land

. . . but in addition, Karita Mattila has positively enormous guns---just the honking great guns, in fact, called for in the role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut by Roger Pines, pompous essayist for the Lyric Opera.

I am actually unfair to Mr. Pines. His last two essays have not been particularly pompous at all. In fact this one contains a gem from Puccini on the source material that turned out to be, as L put it, to librettists what Spinal Tap is to to drummers.

A few minutes research sorts out the history of the original French novel with regard to Richardson's Pamela (it's very Pamela-esque [although, as it turns out, Pamela is {kind of} Manonesque], which is why I bring it up). This convoluted masterpiece was originally an appendix (!) to a completely different novel, published 9 years before Pamela. However, it was then published as its own novel, The history of the chevalier des grieux and Manon Lescaut 13 years after Pamela. We're talking about chickens. We're talking about eggs.

Aaaaaannnyhooo. In addition to reminding me of Richardson's style (and I'm not knocking anyone who can use "gew-gaw" and "painted jezebel" so liberally), Act IV brought to mind Massenet's Thais, which turns out to be the first opera with which I ever bored my gentle readers. Upon reviewing the plot summary for Thais, Manon is sort of the cosine to our Venusian priestess's sine wave, and yet all roads lead to the naughty naughty woman dying of ascetism. Not particularly robust, your opera heroines. Of course, we hear precious little about the lack of moral fiber of the men who fall for them with with regularity that is surprising, all things considered (see, it's a fiber joke).

And speaking of Massenet, that leads me back to the pompous essay. It wasn't just Puccini conspiring to off librettists (though he surely bears some of the blame)---Massenet had had his go at the story 9 years before Puccini's version debuted. His justification for the remake: "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion."

Unfortunately, the serial librettist killings show. The disjointedness of the story reminds one of the stereotype about British cooks and things all being organized by the Italians. Manon and Des Grieux's great love disintegrates offstage in Paris and Act II picks up with Manon not only installed as Geronte's mistress, but already tired of her gew gaws. It is also unclear what, exactly, Manon is being arrested for. And let us never speak of the rocky desert plains of Louisiana or why the tender-hearted captain of the deportation ship thinks that he'd like to spend a few weeks explaining to the other freshly branded prostitutes why Manon gets to bring along her boytoy.

But musically, I have to say AMEN! to the desperate passion. This is chock full o' emotionally manipulative goodness. The Duet at the end of Act II smolders and it's a hard sell, given the joviality that comes before it and the somewhat vocally counterproductive staging. Don't get me wrong, the set was realistic and beautiful. The building with an upper balcony dominating upstage right and center was perfect, allowing extras to bustle on and off to set up the vocal commentary by the chorus. The doorway to the inn at downstage left was a nice set for intimate conversations and allowing for more intense spying by the main characters, and the tables and stalls center and downright allowed the main characters to join in the frivolity and break away from it when appropriate. (I admit I was pettily annoyed tha they wussed out on having the coach onstage, instead opting to have Manon already waiting behind the gates when they opened.)

However, the floor-to-ceiling buildings and the sheer volume of costumage on stage ate up a lot of vocal power. This translated into promblems for Edmondo and Des Grieux in terms of volume, if not energy. Vladimir Galouzine's (our Des Grieux) Tra voie belle was fine, I suppose, but he didn't exactly vocally explode (Good for him, I guess. There are, after all, 3.5 acts to go.) above the din of the crowd scene. However, Bryan Griffin redeemed himself as Edmondo sufficiently before the end of the Act that I was sad to see his curtain call (he disappears, as so many do in these massive novels, at the end of Act I). Christopher Feigum (Lescaut) and Dale Travis (Geronte) had similar issues with power. Travis, in particular, seemed unable even to make use of the magical Inn doorway, which was more forgiving in terms of volume suckage, and I admit I never really warmed to him.

Matilla, in contrast, always hits the ground running, as she proved in Fidelio's first act en fuego earlier this year. As mentioned, not so much with Galouzine, but "Verdete? Io son fedele alla parola mia" made a convert out of me. Hot stuff.

The set for Act II was so reminiscent of Desdemona's bedroom from Lyric's 2001 production that I feel certain that pieces were reused. You've got your standard issue bed on a platform, in this case, set flush against the upstage wall (Desdemona's was placed nearer the apron, which was so much better to hear Renee Fleming's "Ave Maria"). Above it, you have drapery that ends up being 40 feet long, because it extends all the way to the ceiling and puddles around the bed.

Paneled doors (also 40 feet high) to the room flanking the in the upstage wall bed allow for plenty of bawdy French farce, and the stage right and left walls comprise the required French doors for yet more farce potential. I'd forgotten the chairs around Thais's bed, but here they are again in Manon's budoir (no portholes, this time, but they were quite out of period for the text). And this time, in case you didn't catch that Manon is the 18th century equivalent of a pole dancer, Geronte brings in a dozen salivating, geratric cohorts to check out her bowing and scraping (the 18th century equivalent of bumping and grinding). I do have to ask Mr. Frank Philipp "Clan Costumes in the Final Act of Faust" Schloessman what's up with the relentless lapis, though. If you have 40-foot doors painted in deep, deep blue, do you really need the floor to be the same color? Garanimals, Mr. Schloessman: Look into it.

In this comparatively airy set, Feigum redeemed himself and his Lescaut. He doesn't have a big number, but his sparring with Manon reveals him to be terribly callous, but still wickedly charming. One knows that he won't risk his own hide to save Manon, but he'll help if it's not too terribly inconvenient. You know, if there's nothing on the TV or anything else to do. Mattila and Galouzine were once again in fantastic form for their duet in this Act, managing to keep it heartbreaking and sexy despite some truly weird blocking that has them flopping half on and half off the bed over and over again.

Act III's set was perfect in opposition to that for Act I. The layout was almost identical, but where Act I's set was a pleasantly rustic village square, Act III was a ruthlessly urban prison yard. The stage right wall and up-right were cold red brick. Manon's window was set high downstage right and was crossed vertically and horizontally with bars, evoking an animal pen rather than a cell. A zigguratish staircase (you've gotta have a nod to the Middle East, dontcha know, it's where all the best fallen women come from) near center led up to the iron fence separating the crowd (as well as Des Grieux and Lescaut) from the prisoners, and the prison ship itself loomed in silhouette on the upstage wall. The audience could only see a glimples of the staircase downright, through which the women entered the yard to be branded, shackled and loaded on to the boat. What little we could see, though, was incredibly steep and it gave the impression that the few extras that were actually cast were truly a herd of desperate women waiting to be branded, shackled, and loaded on to the boat.

More fabulous music in this Act. The equally gossipy chorus now sings in hushed, mournful tones, pressing themselves closer and closer to the bars of the fence to get a better look. Des Griex really gets to show his stuff in this Act, and although the set was probably just as likely to suck volume, Galouzine was well and truly warmed up by this point. He almost had me forgetting just how stupid a plot twist it is that the Captain lets him aboard the Crystal Ship.

The Act IV set was a disaster, but it's hard to blame the production for that. I reiterate: Rocky Desert Plains of Louisiana. Still, this set didn't make much of an attempt to salvage anything. The foreground was a nightmare of rocks of different heights, lengths, and widths. I'm not sure if Matilla's acting was that good or if she was living in mortal fear of stepping wrong and pitching herself into the orchestra pit. Up right and left were two convenient high stacks of rocks for Des Grieux to hide behind (fortunately, Galouzine is quite wee) when he's off "looking for water." The anemic sun sits about 4 feet off the floor. I suppose that's intended to give the feeling that this is a vast expanse of rocky desert plain in Louisiana, but the sun basically never looks like that anywhere in the US that I know of.

When Manon finally collapses in a more secure-looking niche, the stage manager and set design bitch in me was finally able to relax enough to enjoy "Sola perduta abbandonata." Our Man Formerly on the Inside has informed L and myself that Mattila doesn't suffer from any self-esteem problems. It's a minor bummer to hear it, but completely unsurprising. I can't say I wouldn't use my power for evil, too, if I had that voice.

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