Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Manon, encore

November 26, 2006

Karita Mattila as Manon Lescaut and Misha Didyk as Chevalier des Grieux
Photos: Terrence McCarthy 2006

It’s been a big year for Ms. Lescaut and me. We’ve already met twice before this – times under the guidance of Mr. Massenet – in April at the Metropolitan Opera with Reneé Fleming and again at LA Opera in October with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazòn. This time the terms of engagement were a bit different in that it was under the auspices of Mr. Puccini as interpreted by Karita Matilla, with help from Misha Didyk, and conductor Donald Runnicles. While this meeting did have memorable moments, it was certainly no date with destiny.

Let’s get right to the point. Mattila was magnificent. She is so good it is almost possible to overlook a production that is as inoffensively boring and predictable as it can be. The strong suit this year in San Francisco continues to be Mr. Runnicles and the wonderful SF Opera orchestra. On target throughout, the playing was exemplary. Of course the rest of the cast contained nary a slouch. Eric Halfvarson, John Hancock, and several of the current Adler fellows made the smaller roles more than just place holders while the principal's rested. Misha Didyk's Des Grieux was serviceable, but not entirely convincing. Didyk appears to have developed a good relationship with the audiences and administration here and he's not bad but his prior two outings were in Russian-language operas by Tchaikovsky where he excelled. His Italian has a bit of a slavic flair that makes one wonder what this particular Des Grieux sees in this French bauble of a young woman anyway. Still, he held his own against Mattila and improved steadily as the evening wore on.

Karita Mattila as Manon Lescaut
Photos: Terrence McCarthy 2006

So with all this to like, why was I so bored out of my gourd? One issue was certainly the by-the-numbers staging which could have easily been the set for half a dozen other operas without moving a single piece of furniture. But honestly, this shouldn't be that big of a problem considering the caliber of the vocal performance. I think the real reason is that the opera itself is rather a shaggy dog. Massenet's version is far superior and makes more dramatic sense. Here, Manon is so unlikable throughout, it's hard to care about her relationship with Des Grieux or about her death. Not that one needs to care for her to enjoy the opera, but at no point does she seem young, charming, or passionate - just shallow. The poor characterization of the opera arises from another source - the total mess of a libretto. Unlike Casablanca, here too many cooks (at least 6 different individuals laid hands on it during composition) do spoil the broth in a story that at times borders on the non-sensical.

In any event, hearing Mattila was a treat, one I look forward to again at the Met in February in her reprise of the title role in Jenufa.

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