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Posts Tagged ‘Kiri Te Kanawa’

I like Kiri Te Kanawa.  Those who do not say she lacks substance – for me, she embodies the ideal of spontaneous art, the beauty of which has nothing calculated and convinces in its sheer artlessness. She also embodies an ideal of Mozartian and Straussian operatic performance who involves not only exquisite tonal quality and elegant, almost instrumental phrasing, but also an aristocratic stage presence and a certain cool sexiness. She claims that Lisa della Casa was her model – and Lisa della Casa has recognised her influence on her.

However, since Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (and whoever has seen her on stage knows she deserves to be called “dame”) has started to make her operatic appearances rare, Straussian audiences have been left a bit orphan.  And I wonder why she has waited until 2010 to say her final good-bye to staged opera – I like to believe that it is no coincidence that Anja Harteros is singing (in concert, it is true) her first Marschallin (only a couple of scenes, it is also true) this very year. Straussians do not need to worry anymore, since the good tradition has finally found a worthy exponent.  In any case, it is impossible to be insensitive in an event that represents somehow the end of an era.

At 66, her voice no longer has the silkiness that made her famous, but the tone is unmistakably warm and smooth. She took a while to warm – and her middle register is now somewhat recessed – but one can still feel the magic when everything falls into place, such as in the end of act I, crowned by a velvety floating pianissimo. Her Marschallin has never been a detailed impersonation such as Régine Crespin’s (and the occasion lapse of memory is only an evidence of that) and gravitates around charm, which she still has in plenty. Her figure is graceful as ever and her bearing is majestic yet feminine.

Her Octavian is in the exactly opposite situation –  Claudia Mahnke is at her absolute vocal  prime. Her mezzo soprano is always fully, evenly and healthily produced, she floats mezza voce at will and has no problem with both ends of her range. She is indeed an exceptional singer and would be the best Octavian I have seen in the recent years if she had the physique du rôle. Alas, she has not – although the voice suggests boyishness in its impetuosity, she was not made for trouser roles at all. But you should keep her name. At first, Jutta Böhnert’s clear but not twittery soprano seems right for the role of Sophie. However, the tessitura finally proves to be high for her and her high mezza voce lacks some freedom. That said, she is a stylish singer with very clear diction and knows how to behave girlishly without seeming silly. Finally, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson has everything a great Ochs should have – a spacious, firm, dark bass with solid low notes, a most natural delivery of the text and he is really really funny. He tends to overdo it, though, and needed some guidance to fine his performance from a very interesting to a fully satisfying one.

The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln is not exactly a world-class ensemble – the brass section can be messy and the strings lack a distinctive sound – but conductor Patrik Ringborg lead it to produce a very clean and perfectly balanced performance, the structural transparency of it indeed admirable. However, there was very little soul inside the flesh – many theatrical effects in the score failed to hit the mark and there was a serious lack of atmosphere in key scenes.

Günter Krämer’s 2002 production, revived by Carsten Kochan, is seriously misguided. I would use the word “ludicrous”, but I have used it for Achim Freyer’s Onegin for the Staatsoper and therefore I have to use something lighter for this one, which is only bizarre. To start it, it has bamboos all over the place. Then people move about in a rather incoherent way that does not make sense with the libretto and within the stagings’s concept itself.

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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.

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