The title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a tough piece of casting. It is clearly a part for a soprano lirico spinto, but its constant shifting into the lower end of the soprano range will always be a test for any lyric soprano. I must confess that my heart beats for only one Manon in the discography, Renata Tebaldi. Only she is able to keep loveliness and femininity down there. I acknowledge Maria Callas’s and Renata Scotto’s brilliantly crafted accounts of this role, but the sound alone of their voices does not play the trick for me. Manon is the kind of woman who can turn all heads in her direction the minute she walks in. If the singer’s tone lacks this inbuilt sexiness, she is just a clever girl pretending to be a beautiful one. And that is definitely not what is wanted here.
Karita Mattila, for example, has it – her warm velvety soprano is sensuousness itself. Her In quelle trine morbide knocked the audience out in its sexy daydreaminess, for instance. However, at least at this stage of her career, Mattila’s voice shies away both at the bottom and at the top of her range. Her low notes only pierce through if thrown in chest voice and her acuti lack tone and risk to go off track. She often disguises that with dramatic effects, but the frequentation of heavy roles is not doing any favour to her voice. In terms of characterization, her Manon has a rather modern approach – something of a Paris Hilton (prision scene included) without the inheritance. She performs the concept with skill, particularly in act II, when she is not afraid of going larger than life. Her closing scene, however, was very subdued and both soprano and conductor went for a more exhausted than desperate Sola, perduta, abandonata.
I was suspicious about Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux. This is a tenor formerly identified with bel canto roles tackling a rather heavy part, but I have to say his instincts were right. His bright tenor showed no discomfort with this writing and he sang stylishly and sensitively throughout. Dwayne Croft was a rich-toned Lescaut and Sean Panikkar displayed a healthy, likeable tenor in the small role of Edmondo.
James Levine is an exemplary Puccinian, building rich textured sonorities without drowning his singer in orchestral loudness – his subtle handling of the intermezzo was most refreshing.
The old production with Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes has aged rather well – I have to confess that Manon is one of those operas I prefer to see in a traditional staging – its minuets, wigs, deportations to the colonies etc do not go with cocktail parties, telephones and airplanes.