[Met Performance] CID:240460

Manon Lescaut
Metropolitan Opera House, Fri, February 7, 1975

Manon Lescaut (129)
Giacomo Puccini | Luigi Illica/Giuseppe Giacosa/Marco Praga/Ruggero Leoncavallo
Leontyne Price

Des Grieux
John Alexander

William Walker

Fernando Corena

Jon Garrison

Gene Boucher

Solo Madrigalist
Marcia Baldwin

Maureen Smith

Linda Mays

Nadyne Brewer

Elvira Green

Dancing Master
Robert Schmorr

Louis Sgarro

Nico Castel

Andrij Dobriansky

Peter Herman Adler

Herbert Graf

H. M. Krehan-Crayon

Stage Director
Patrick Tavernia

Manon Lescaut received ten performances this season.

Review 1:

Review of Andrew Porter in the New Yorker

A Manon of Great Price

It could be argued that two productions of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" playing in one city are two too many. But in a season marking the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death that argument would be unkind. One too many, then, this year; and since the Metropolitan Opera already had a workable "Manon Lescaut" in stock, it can be gently regretted that the City Opera chose to mount another, also in Italian, instead of venturing into "Edgar" (an extraordinary and exciting piece) if Puccini commemoration was the intention, or Auber's or Henze's handling of the Manon story if the heroine herself was deemed to be the draw. The City Opera's "Manon Lescaut," which opened last September, is an animated, over ingenious and unfaithful presentation. The Metropolitan's, which was revived last week, is the oldest staging in its repertory. It was born in 1949, directed by Herbert Graf and designed by H. M. Crayon. Dorothy Kirsten, as Manon, and Jussi Bjoerling, as des Grieux, led the cast. The show still looks good, staged now by Patrick Tavernia, under sensitive and stylish lighting by Rudolph Kuntner, that matches the manner of the décor and catches the expression of the singers' faces. It is presented frankly as a period piece - not so much a drama as a pretty diversion with emotional outbursts. Criticism is disarmed. The inconsistency of the score can be forgiven when we are not expected to take it very seriously. We can enjoy it as the most copious and least narrowly calculated of Puccini's scores. Four heroines are billed to appear: Leontyne Price, Miss Kirsten, Montserrat Caballé, and Teresa Kubiak.

Miss Price is the first. Three Manons form her sole contribution to the season, and this is her first new role there since Samuel Barber's "Cleopatra," in 1966. It is not one to which she is especially well suited. Miss Price - Renata Tebaldi was a singer of the same kind - is always herself, a delightful and distinctive self that can assume, memorably the emotions and demeanor of Aida, or Leonora, in "Trovatore," even Cio-Cio-San, but has trouble turning into Manon. Directness, unaffected simplicity of utterance, noble naturalness are her virtues; a warm and beautiful voice, lustrous, powerful, and never glaring, is her glory. But, as John Steane puts it in "The Great Tradition," there is also "a certain absence of flexibility in characterization." Puccini's Manon demands more sophisticated resources and a protean vocal personality. The writing of the role itself is inconsistent; Act II is close to opéra comique, but Act IV is a Liebestod. At La Scala (as I noted when reviewing the City Opera production), the first Manon was a Nannetta and the second a Tosca - Olga Olghina (described by Shaw as "a clever little Russian lady") followed by Hariclea Darclée. Three Manons whom Puccini admired were Lina Cavalieri, at the Met premiere, in 1907 ("I was really struck by her temperament, especially in the moments of exaltation and of emotion"); Lucrezia Bori, heroine when the Met company, under Toscanini, introduced the opera to Paris, in 1910 ("Little Bori was exquisite and her voice, which had seemed a shade immature and small, achieved such expansion in the theatre that it rode the powerful Act III ensemble"); and Lotte Lehmann, in Vienna, in 1923 (a lack of coquetry in Act II, but "I have never heard an Act IV Manon like her"). These three very different sopranos all made records of "In quelle trine morbide," the Act II aria.

In Act I of the Metropolitan revival, Miss Price was content to open her eyes and her mouth wide and sing straight out to the audience, without bothering much about characterization. In what Puccini called the "powdered scenes" of Act II, she was very funny and charming - a plump, pretty kitten got up in crinoline and white wig. The audience's laughter was a little uneasy at first, but when it became confident Miss Price responded to it and romped through the remaining episodes for comedy. The scenes of the eunuchs warbling a madrigal (the "Agnus Dei" of Puccini's "Mass," reworded), of Manon learning the minuet while ancient roues and foppish abbés ogle her ravenously, and of Manon caroling her pastoral "L'ora, o Tirsi," are meant to be entertaining - though Puccini must have intended a more finely pointed, less downright kind of humor. Miss Price was not so much Manon as someone enjoying the absurdity of pretending to be that dainty heroine. Her sense of fun proved infectious. She also sang "L'ora, o Tirsi" very prettily; true, the trills and grace notes were not clean, but the little arching line that opens its phrases was delicately shaped and the held G that acts as springboard to the reprise was timed to perfection. Connoisseurs of operatic laughter were offered a new prize for their collections. What Puccini wrote simply as "Ah! Ah!," "ridendo," and two headless eighth-note stems, Miss Price turned into a quick, upward pitched "'Haha!" of glee, melting into a delicious portamemo gurgle of mirth that sounded deftly tuned to the version of the "Manon" motif from the orchestra. This was something to set beside Galli-Curci's sparkling peals in the laughing song from Auber's "Manon Lescaut," or the arpeggio of amusement that Lehmann threw into Mistress Ford's aria in Nicolai's "Merry Wives."

I have never seen Miss Price look more beautiful than she did in her plain, dark prison dress of Act III - long hair falling simply and abundantly down her back, demeanor purged of civetishness, penitent yet still passionate. At the close of the act, when, "with features irradiated with supreme joy, from the top of the gangplank Manon extends her arms to des Grieux," she rather overdid things. In Act IV she was affecting, but not in her best vocal state. "Smoky" is a word often applied, with approval, to Miss Price's tone, but the sound in "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" could more properly be described as foggy.

In a serious, dramatic, balanced performance of "Manon Lescaut," the emotional weight of the piece is carried by des Grieux, who has most of the numbers. At Spoleto, last year, Luchino Visconti directed a production in which the principals looked their parts, a production in which, by all reports, des Grieux (played by Harry Theyard) was indeed at the center - and could plausibly ask the Captain, in the ardent apostrophe that closes Act III, to be taken on as a cabin boy. (From Caruso, the request must have sounded odd.) At the Metropolitan, John Alexander looked suitably aristocratic. I like his keen, sharply focused tone. His phrasing was elegant. But neither the stage personality nor the sheer sound of his voice in climaxes was romantic enough to fill the passions of the role. William Walker's Lescaut was robust and vigorous; vocally, however, he was a good comprimario in a role that used to be cast at Scotti, Sammarco, or Amato strength. Fernando Corena's Geronte was expertly played - a rounded, unexaggerated, uncaricatured impersonation. (In passing, Mr. Corena's Don Pasquale, earlier in the season, can be praised in much the same terms; it was humorous, human, and unclowned.)

Peter Herman Adler conducted. The orchestral [beginning of the opera], marked "allegro brillante," was hectic; the intermezzo, whose main section is marked "andante calmo," was bumpy. Too much striving for instrumental effect. But once singers began, the conductor provided a lively and not unduly prominent accompaniment.

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