I’ve read around so many negative opinion on Karita Mattila’s Manon, especially from those who saw the cinecast, that I felt I should say something in her favour. First of all, it seems that the close-up shooting made Mattila’s acting seem ridiculous and unnatural. I must say that this was not the impression I had live at the theatre.
With the help of distance, she looked convincingly young. I am sure that the close-ups may have turned her jeune fille-acting a bit strange for a woman in her 50’s. But again – from a seat at the theatre, she looked believably innocent in act I (as she was supposed to).
When it comes to act II, it seems again that her spoiled-girl attitude didn’t survive the proximity of the cameras’ lenses. Although one may discuss her choice to portray Manon that way, I may sound repetitive, but in the theatre she looked girlish enough to make it work. In any case, I think she has a point in her approach. There is nothing lady-like about Manon – she is not well-bred and all her elegance comes from her striking good-looks and sex appeal.
In one passage of Prevost’s book, Manon has arranged to meet one admirer in order to obtain some expensive gifts from him and then run away with Des Grieux. He is not entirely convinced she is being honest about the whole adventure, but she explains that, although she loves him, she cannot part with the prospect of making some money out of it. The plan is settled – she would insist to go to the Comédie with the rich gentleman and, during the intermission, she would invent an excuse and then run away.
While Des Grieux is strategically waiting for her, a young woman appears with a note from Manon. “G… M… has received her with politeness and magnificence beyond expectation. He covered her with presents and promised her the life of a queen. She assured me nonetheless that she had not forgotten me in this new splendour, but she was not able to convince G… M… to take her to the Comédie and had to postpone the pleasure of seeing me to another day. In order to make amends somehow for the distress those news may have caused, she had taken the pains to find me one of the most charming girls in Paris to deliver me this message. Yours faithfully, Manon Lescaut.”
Compared to something like that, kicking pillows and making fun of her dance teacher sounds rather innocent. I remember hearing a woman next to me saying she disagreed with Mattila’s intent to show Manon as a prostitute or something. But the truth is that this is not really far away from what the character is about. That said, I believe that libretto couldn’t help concentrating too much the plot into a few scenes and the singer/actress would be in more advantage in focusing her portrayal in the allure, the seduction (instead of the nastiness).
I know it is not fashionable to say good things about Kiri Te Kanawa, but I find her acting in the video from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, particularly convincing and effective. She takes advantage of her natural “iciness” to portray Manon’s selfishness and I do believe that this kind of haughtiness is something you find in many beautiful women who are convinced (probably by experience…) that the whole world is at her service.
In Manon’s case, reversal of fortune makes her finally see that in a particularly touching (in Prevost’s sentimentalized style) passage of the book: “You will be then the richest person in the universe, she answered, for, if there is no love in this world such as the one you feel for me, it is also impossible for someone to be more loved than you are. I make myself justice, she continued. I know too well that I have never deserved the exceptional attachment you formed for me. I have caused you suffering that you could have not forgiven without extreme generosity. I was shallow and flighty and, even if I have always desperately loved you, I was nothing but an ingrate. But you cannot believe how much I have changed. The tears you saw me shed so often since we have left France never had my own misery for object. I’ve ceased to feel miserable myself since you have started to share my fate with me. I have only cried out of tenderness and compassion for you. I cannot forgive myself for having been able to cause you distress. I cannot stop reproaching myself for my inconstancy and being moved on admiring what love has made you capable of doing for an unfortunate creature who was never worthy of these favours and who could never pay you even with all her blood, she added weeping abundantly, half the trouble she has caused you”. [Please forgive the poor translations.]
As a final note, I am not speaking here of the musical aspects of Mattila’s Manon – the idea here is to say that I find the criticism against her acting in the Met’s production exaggerated. She has reasons to portray the character the way she did, as the serious artist she has always been.