26 February 2007

It wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels

I’d say the highlight of the fall opera season was Karita Mattila in Manon Lescaut. I was glad they were doing the Puccini, which I had never seen on stage before, rather than Massenet’s Manon, one of the few operas that strikes me as a total waste of time. Years ago I read Abbe Prevost’s novel, which is quite entertaining but seemed more like a satire of romance novels in the fashion of Jane Austen’s juvenilia than the thing itself. This is not a reaction I had to, say, Melmoth the Wanderer or Anne Radcliffe’s novels. I will even admit that apparently I was the only student in one of my classes at Cal who found anything scary in Frankenstein. I still see nothing wrong with that reaction to Mary Shelley’s intense, hallucinatory prose, but I’m glad my pathological timidity kept the professor from noticing or making me discuss this reaction in class. Maybe Prevost’s novel just crams too much into too short a space, or involves a guy besotted with a heroine I find just too unsympathetic. She’s like Becky Sharpe (yes, I was an English major – why do you ask?) without the self-awareness or sense of humor, which makes her pretty much just a social-climbing whore. Violetta, with her inherent nobility and melancholy, never seems this way to me.

If anyone can save this character, it’s Mattila of the golden hair and more golden voice. She is also a skilled actress who pays attention to the little gestures that build a character. Misha Didyk as des Grieux was not on her level either vocally or dramatically, but I did like him, unlike some people I talked to who absolutely hated him. He does this funny little swoop with his whole body when he’s going for the big notes, which I find endearing though cartoony. I found the whole cast to be on a very high level, unlike the production, which was the sort that gets described as realistic but which is not that at all, reality being too dirty and diffuse to meet the strenuously picturesque requirements of operatic directors. Everyone is quaffing or roistering or lustily fencing while wearing color-coordinated costumes and everything is way too clean. I’m not sure what “realism” means anyway to a work that ends in the “deserts outside New Orleans.” You want eighteenth-century reality? Try dirt, mud, shit in the streets, dust everywhere. I had a total inner-housewife moment when Lescaut visits his sister in the second act and jumps on her kept-woman bedspread in his boots. If you’re going to pimp your sister out, you should at least respect the lovely things her old man is rich enough to buy. I kind of liked the dark blue walls of that second act set, but one of the problems with these elaborate sets for each scene is that each half-hour act is followed by a half-hour intermission, which breaks the mood. Usually it’s ballet that reminds me of watching football (pretty girls in short skirts jumping around, muscular guys in very very tight shiny pants, moves I couldn’t possibly duplicate) but this production made me think of those final five minutes that can last thirty, as in “there’s a lot of dead time here.” I think you’d get a lot more expressionist punch from the wild contrasts between the acts if they happened when we could still remember the preceding scene.

I felt pretty much the same way about the staging of Carmen I saw the next night. There were two casts; I saw the one with the excellent Escamillo of Kyle Ketelsen, a nice combination of studly and subtle, and the luscious Micaela of Ana Maria Martinez, who for once seemed like a plausible rival to Carmen. The gypsy girl herself was sung by Hadar Halevy. I liked her without falling under the spell. She grinned a lot, which was an interesting, devil-may-care choice for Carmen, as opposed to the more common spitfire approach. Marco Berti as Don Jose just disappointed me. If he starts out looking like a disheveled middle-aged man who’s been on a bender, you kind of lose the dramatic arc of his fall into obsessive stalking. I could have gotten past the looks if his voice had been youthful and filled with pain and longing, but no such luck.

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