[Met Performance] CID:146920

Metropolitan Opera House, Sat, January 31, 1948

Review 1:

Review of Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune

Sneak Preview

Massenet's "Manon," as heard on Saturday night at the Metropolitan Opera House, was in the nature of a "sneak preview." The work has been given before this year, and the Saturday night public is neither dressy nor difficult. All the same, the cast contained in leading roles two of the Met's biggest names. Neither Eleanor Steber nor James Melton had previously sung the work. They were trying it out, I am sure, and being tried out for it, as a possible double vehicle for two popular stars. The result, as far as this observer could tell, was favorable, from the simple fact that it was not in any sense a failure.

Neither Miss Steber nor Mr. Melton appeared to this listener as miscast in the roles of Manon and Des Grieux. They sang sometimes badly, often well, as is common in first performances. They were feeling around, too, for a convincing dramatic line; and as often as not they found it. If Miss Steber's natural stage bent is toward the monumental, the statuesque, as Mr. Melton's is toward the bland simplicities of the operetta, the two did not in this work make at all an inadequate pair of worldly-wise stage lovers.

In addition to their vocal advantages, which are considerable, their French declamation was careful, clear and, considering the vastness of the house, well projected. The whole performance, in fact, came nearer to comprehensibility, as French, than any other I have witnessed at the Metropolitan in some time. And if the only French on the stage that sounded like real French was that of Martial Singher, everybody was singing, nevertheless, in the Gallic tongue and communicating to the audience clearly by that means.

Whether this opera, so popular in France, can be made into an American favorite I do not know. If any artists now available can turn the trick, Miss Steber and Mr. Melton would seem to be indicated for a try. But before success can be anticipated, the whole Metropolitan production would need to be done over. The sets and most of the costumes are unimaginably old and tawdry. Last night only the Gaming House scene, borrowed from "La Traviata," had any visual brilliance; and that was nearly a century out of period. Miss Steber's clothes were new and obviously expensive but brutally striking in an ensemble that had neither style of detail nor coloristic composition as a whole, not to speak of freshness in the materials.

An orchestral reading somewhat more suave and sensitive than Mr. Pelletier's would help, too, though a few more rehearsals might turn that trick. Last night's leading singers, for instance, had never rehearsed with the orchestra. Steber and Melton and Singher make a not at all bad "Manon" cast, and the ladies' trio - Manski, Stellman and Turner - is excellent. So is Jerome Hines as the elderly Count des Grieux. What the production needs is what any French opera needs - expressiority of action, taste in decoration and delicate conducting. Only through these amenities can singing be transformed into lyric drama. Unless this transformation is operated there is no point wasting time and money on French opera at all. French opera is lyric drama and unless treated as such will fail miserably.

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