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The Ironic Lady

Another grim narrative of the Gelb years, and one I think is generally hogwash, is that the Met has (at least in theatrical terms) lost its way entirely.  Those with a little less flair for offstage drama will at least acknowledge the success of an easily agreed upon core of imported productions that, in contrast to that alchemy or perhaps origami whereby successful theater directors are meant to be folded into successful opera directors, have actually marked a period of great creative innovation in the house.  

Laurent Pelly’s uneven account of Massenet’s Manon, which made its house premiere last night, doesn’t fit comfortably into this account, but doesn’t commit such grievous sins as to call it into question altogether.  Neither rapturously received like his terribly sweet and funny Fille, nor given the Bondy treatment, Pelly’s conception of the piece is tonally all over the place.  Early acts are peppered with Brechtian gestures in the key of Cute, but Manon turns out to be just the wrong opera for slightly ironic whimsy.

The Hotel de Transylvanie is inexplicable, though surprisingly wheelchair-accessible (ramps and inclines seem to be a theme here, though it’s lost on me what they’re meant to connote unless the whole thing was designed in the hope that Marjorie Lawrence would come back from the beyond for the next revival.)  In its final act, though, the physical production is so delicately grim and so right, one is disposed to forgive the rest which, after all, is more perplexing than assertively wrong.

Perhaps Anna Netrebko is especially sensitive to her surroundings.  Though she’s charming in the first act (making much of throwaway lines like “tous les deux?”, read differently each time), she does some unfortunate spinning around with her arms out—say, wasn’t that on the list of banned operatic gestures?—and living up to her unfortunate stringy wig with some “what the hell else am I gonna do?” mugging.  In the next act, the farewell to the furniture came off well, but wouldn’t have explained to someone who’d been hiding under a rock for many seasons why our Anna is on the sides of buses.

In the Cours-la-Reine, standing in front of what appears to be an enormous basketball, she is funny and alluring, if sexlessly so with her drag queen hand jive, as Manon the coquette. A pair of Ds in the gavotte apparently had better things to do than to show up and be sung, but we got on with our lives.  And in fact, one had to wonder if there wasn’t a moment like in the movies, backstage: plucky heroine falls on her face and decides that the next reel is where she shows everyone what she’s made of.  For that is what happened.

Perhaps here is the place to mention that Piotr Beczala went, this evening, from being another of the Met’s half dozen capable Edgardos to being its best asset, should French opera play a large role in coming seasons.  ”Le Rêve” was a wonder of pathos and vulnerability.  In St. Sulpice, he was Netrebko’s towering equal, but in every moment of the opera, he provided the kind of hairpin turns of dynamic that matter so much in this rep, never calculated, but always precise.  The mixe is there, the diction struck my non-native ear as good (well, it helps to be compared to Trebs in this particular category), and he delivered all of this with an easy sincerity and not a little spontaneity.

The St. Sulpice scene (as Ms. Golightly was saying when she so rudely interrupted herself) found both stars vocally ablaze.  Netrebko, though she seemed to have mysteriously skipped a grade from coquette and appeared at one point about to sing “n’est-ce plus mon…”—well,l I don’t know the French word for that—was pure vocal seduction, all insecurity vanquished.  Beczala met her blow for blow.  It was a quarter hour of Why I Go to the Opera, and this continued through the Hotel Transylvanie, ordinarily a scene I half doze through but here a reminder of who has the most beautiful voice in opera (why look, it’s Anna Netrebko) and who can fill a 4,000 seat theater with the flood of sound that is her high notes (still Anna Netrebko), so fuck you, pair of Ds in the gavotte.

Let me not, in this already prolix love-in, slight the rest of the people who made great music.  Fabio Luisi led a well-paced account of the score, sincere in places where Massenet is not all confection.  Paolo Szot reminded us of his terribly handsome voice after a debut in The Nose that was hardly a vocal showcase.  Particularly on high, it’s a fine, polished instrument and he cuts a dashing figure onstage.  David Pittsinger, as the Count des Grieux,  sang with great dignity and made a case for a much more prominent role on the roster.  Christophe Mortagne did not flog the obvious notes in Guillot’s character, and it makes me wonder if they could call him back next time they do Hoffmann to redeem Frantz’s horrid couplets, such a relief it was.  The supporting cast was uniformly fine.

A bit of stage business in Manon’s seduction of des Grieux will be, I think, much remarked upon in the coming days, but my failure to mention it is my remark.  In all honesty, as I recalled the evening, it was the singing that overwhelmed other impressions.

Photo: Ken Howard. Video: Metropolitan Opera.

133 comments

  • Buster says:

    The two Manons I know are Renée Doria (with Vanzo, highlights), and Fanny Heldy. Heldy is fantastic -- you can actually see her act the part while listening, she must have been someting on stage.

    I would love to hear the complete Feraldy -- very cheap on Naxos, I see.

    June Anderson’s Manon coming up …..

    • Camille says:

      That is absolutely true, Buster. Fanny Heldy was a famous Manon and much loved, as well. She is one of the divas included in the Assouline publication, “Lost Divas” ,by Andre Tubeuf. Therewithin is a cd which includes her Air du Miroir, but fortunately, someone has posted this Saint Sulplice scene, sung with tenor, Fernand Ansseau.
      No date is given but I am guesstimating it is in the twenties….

      La Grande Heldy:

  • oedipe says:

    Leontina Vaduva:

    • manou says:

      Vaduva was the first Manon I saw -- she was exquisite.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        I got to watch Vaduva in a full-dress staging rehearsal with orchestra for the end of Act II (including the table) and the Saint Sulpice scene, when she was coming into an existing production at the ROH. I don’t recall a thing about the tenor, but she was memorable. Boy, did she know how to work that shawl!

      • MontyNostry says:

        What a shame that Ange apparently shafted Vaduva’s career once she rose from her undead sleep!

    • Camille says:

      What an adorable and charming creature!

      What did ever become of La Vaduva…she seemed to be poised for a fairly decent career.

      Lovely singing from both she and Alagna as an excellent Chevalier.

      Merci bien, oedipe.

    • MontyNostry says:

      Both Leontina and Roberto sound good there, but both are having a bad-hair day when it comes to frizz!

      • Donna Anna says:

        A few years ago I wrote to one of Vaduva’s managers and I got a response that she was “preparing for new roles” but clearly that never happened. I know she has a not so young child so perhaps she backed off for family reasons. Whatever, it’s a loss. She was a wonderful Juliette to Alagna’s Romeo and I wish I could have seen her in Manon.

  • Feraldi is wonderful. Sayao slightly less so, on that cut live recording from the Met, but still has the ‘style’. Better on the Columbia recording of the arias, fab. VDLA with Monteux is essential, esp for him -- I’ve a small problem with her faux naif act 1, but the charm is still there. Cotrubas for the general accomplishment, and lately Gheorghiu in a beautifully scaled performance, a tonal creation. The way she varies her tone between act 1 and 2 is really classy, and Pappano gets the elan. Not Monteux but plenty of colour and schwung. Can’t even begin to describe why I don’t like Renee in this, on CD or video. Netrebko, Dessay etc -- no.

  • MontyNostry says:

    I realise all that, grimoaldo, and it was simply an observation on Masterson’s tone, not a criticism. If I remember rightly, I saw her as Madame Lidoine (in English) alongside Crespin as Madame de Croissy (also in English). The French love Flott -- the Blanche of that performance -- too, and she also always sounds frightfully British to me, no matter what language she is working in.)
    The more soubrettish Marilyn Hill Smith (also a good singer, as it happens and sweeter-toned to my ear than Masterson) is another rather English-sounding singer in the same vein, even in German repertoire.

    • grimoaldo says:

      You do remember rightly Monty, that Dialogues was amazing. Marilyn Hill -Smith was truly delightful in operetta also, I agree, but she never managed to “cross over” to “serious” opera. Flott, Masterson, Hill-Smith are all three some of my favourite singers who gave some of the performances whose memories I treasure most.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Do you remember La Hill-Smith’s guest appearances on Julia Migenes’ TV show Top Hats and Tiaras?

        • grimoaldo says:

          I do, yes indeed, remember that delightfully camp and fun show and Hill-Smith’s appearances on it!

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Hill-Smith sweeter-toned than Masterson? You obviously didn’t hear her Zerbinetta which was anything but sweet-toned. Masterson sang a lot of lyric roles and she remains one of the most convincing British Konstanzes of the last 40 or so years. Hill-Smith was a Blonde, metallic and a tad shrill as I recall. Masterson’s Manon has not been bettered in my experience. Cotrubas was a bit fruity. Vaduva came close. Of course, I only heard Masterson sing it in English, though she sang it several times in French in Paris and other French cities.

      • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

        Neither was a patch on Wolverhampton’s very own Maggie Teyte!

        And why has no one mentioned the unbetterable Des Grieux of Heddle Nash?

  • Camille says:

    When the subject of Manon comes up my thoughts always turn to Sybil Sanderson, one of the great beauties, if not one of the greatest singers, of la Belle Epoque. Her interpolations, or re-writes, actually, are now a part of the published score these days, although no one would know that at all if it were not for the years of effort, the great labour of love on her behalf by one Jack Winsor Hansen, author of “THE SIBYL SANDERSON STORY: THE REQUIEM FOR A DIVA”, published by Amadeus Press.

    I read this bio while in San Francisco, living not far from where her family mansion once stood, at California and Sacramento Streets. As Manon was, indeed, Sibyl’s first role, tried out in Den Haag, under an assumed name, and it was she who introduced the role to the Metropolitan to not very great acclaim and a great many quibbles (one may read the reviews of the prima of Manon by going to the Met archives--several reviewers including the redoubtable W. J. Henderon), I would like to take this moment to recognise her accomplishments, and to honour her short and tragically consumed life. if anyone knows how to import a picture, that would be nice, so as to give an idea of the beauty that bewitched and enchanted not only Massenet but le tout Paris.

    One thing became certain from this book, ianw2′s contempt for Massenet is well placed and thoroughly deserved, at least in the instance of la Sanderson, as “Mademoiselle Wagner”, Himself, did some utterly contemptible things to his muse, that is for certain.

    So, ian, h8te on!!!! You were right.

    • Camille says:

      The picture at the beginning of this video excerpt from Esclarmonde is Sibyl Sanderson in costume as Manon.

      The music, of course, was written for her unique capabilities. I wonder what Massenet would have thought of Sutherland’s much heavier voice and approach.

      More than a hundred repetitions of this opera at the Paris Universal Exposition and one can easily understand how this star consumed itself so quickly.

        • brooklynpunk says:

          Camille:

          That must have been some big House..California and Sacramento Streets are parallel, no?… where was it…in the Western Addition?

          • A. Poggia Turra says:

            It’s well possible that the Sandersons has a mansion near or on the crest of Nob Hill, between the two mentioned parallel streets. Silas Sanderson resigned as chief justice of the California Supreme court to take the positions of chief counsel of the Central Pacific Railroad. No doubt his railroad contemporaries Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington, all of whom had mansions on Nob Hill, would have welcomed him as a neighbor.

          • Camille says:

            ACHTUNG: Camille has no sense of direction. Just the other day she was to meet her caro sposo @ approximately 22nd Street between Sixth and Seventh. She got off the train and walked along 22nd Street, past Park and Lexington, until she got to 3rd Avenue, where it dawned on her that she would never arrive at her destination.

            Similarly, she now recalls the error of the parallel streets (would that they were parallel lives!). She used to drive from her domicile in Pacific Depths, up Fillmore Street to either Sacramento OR California Street and then hang a major right turn. There she drove along until she reached a slight knoll; to the left was a little park. Now damn it all, I have forgotten the cross street and that book is in my villa, not in the crumbling palazzo of NYC, so next week when I have returned to my domicile in the country, I shall uncover the mystery of what the exact corner the well-to-do Sanderson family lived on. Couple of great big apartment houses, you know, the six story kind, there now so I doubt it is the former home.

            I used to always linger for a moment and repeat a mantra for her. Poor girl.
            Beauty is a curse.

          • Camille says:

            Brooklyn—
            I can finally answer your question as I am again at home with the bio of Sybil Sanderson. Her family’s mansion--and that it was--stood at the corners of Sacramento and Octavia Streets. Now I know why I thought it was the other two, as many times I would turn off Fillmore onto California, and then segue over to Sacramento and Octavia. No sense of direction.

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    Hearing with one’s eyes, defined:

    “The role of Lescaut cannot be that rewarding for a baritone, but Paulo Szot made the most of it. In the novel Lescaut is Manon’s brother, who, in effect, pimps her out to an older man. The opera turns him into Manon’s swashbuckling cousin, whose biggest flaw seems to be an addiction to gambling. Mr. Szot sings the role with robust sound and vitality.”

    To me his voice sounded undistinguished and pushed out of focus, and for someone who CAN act, he overdid everything to be noticed at all.

  • Buster says:

    Leb’ wohl, mein liebes kleines Tischchen: