Manon, Metropolitan Opera, New York, February 2001

French Kiss, New York Magazine, 26 February 2001
On ordinary nights, Financial Times, 27 February 2001
In review - New York, Opera News, May 2001

French Kiss
Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine, 26 February 2001

It was not a glamorous premiere and few of the beautiful people were
there, but the evening when the Metropolitan Opera brought its
fourteen-year-old production of Manon back into the repertory will
probably be one of my fonder memories of the current season. Perhaps
that's partly because each time Massenet's adorable opera returns, the
Met upgrades the cast and Peter McClintock continues to sharpen and
fine-tune the stage action, a vast improvement over the late Jean-Pierre
Ponnelle's original, oddly faceless direction.

The major surprise is Ruth Ann Swenson in the title role. Yes, this
soprano, when she is in form, charms the ear with a lovely, satin-smooth
voice and a formidable coloratura technique. But she also tends to be a
maddeningly bland singer, deficient in expressive range and dramatic
specificity, which has made her recent excursions into the heavier bel
canto, Verdi, and Puccini operas deadly dull. I can't say that her Manon
is exactly prismatic or that she explores every facet of this
self-destructive coquette and her lightning mood changes. Still,
Swenson's characterization has few blank moments, and she shapes the
music with a seductive tenderness that is likely to meet with the
approval of even the most exacting Manon connoisseurs.

Better yet is Giuseppe Sabbatini in his Met debut as Des Grieux. This
Italian tenor makes something of a specialty of French opera, and the
slight nasal buzz, tightly focused tone, and articulate clarity of his
voice are certainly to the manner born. Although not a large sound, it
projects clearly, even when reduced to a whispered pianissimo;
everything about this distinguished interpretation, visually as well as
vocally, is elegantly refined without any loss of virility or presence.
The most distinguished Italian interpreters of Des Grieux in my
experience have included Giuseppe di Stefano and Cesare Valletti, and
Sabbatini definitely belongs in their company. Paul Plishka (Count des
Grieux) and Roberto de Candia (Lescaut) sound rather rough opposite
these two suave protagonists, but no serious damage is done. Few
musicians find more lyrical grace and rhythmic buoyancy in Manon than
Julius Rudel, who, at 80, leads a performance as fresh and vigorous as
the ones he conducted for Beverly Sills at the City Opera more than 30
years ago.

On ordinary nights
By Martin Bernheimer, Financial Times, 27 February 2001

Every night cannot be a gala night, not even at the mighty Metropolitan.
The real test of an opera company doesn't involve its glamorous new
productions nearly so much as it involves what happens on the ordinary
nights between those new productions. All eyes and ears were on the big
house at Lincoln Center in January for the premiere of Busoni's Doktor
Faust, and all will return in March for an innovative Verdi celebration
in the rare form of Nabucco. But in February the company concentrated on
reheating familiar challenges. Much of the cooking turned out to be
reassuringly good.

The current version of Massenet's fragile, sentimental and elegantly
perfumed Manon has been in and out of the repertory since 1987. In the
latest revival, Peter McClintock paid respectful if hardly slavish
attention to the stylish, mildly stylised production created by
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (a theatrical genius who died at 56 in 1988).

The performance was dominated by the lyric tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini, who
made his Met debut as a Chevalier des Grieux of extraordinary dramatic
ardour and vocal finesse (ah, those diminuendos!). Ruth Ann Swenson, his
should-be seductive Manon, looked attractive, moved gracefully and sang
very prettily, with absolutely no fear of the stratosphere.

Unfortunately, she conveyed very little urgency and even less passion.
Her death scene left hardly a wet eye in the house. Roberto de Candia
swaggered comically as her brother, and old Michel Senechal, the only
holdover from 1987, made a virtue of Gallic mannerism as old Guillot.
Paul Plishka returned, sympathetic if somewhat unsteady, as the elder
Des Grieux. Julius Rudel, who had presided over the historic Manon with
Beverly Sills next door at the New York City Opera 33 years ago,
celebrated his 80th birthday by conducting with equal parts pathos and

In review - New York
John Freeman, Opera News, May 2001

For the revival of Manon (seen Feb. 13), Ponnelle's vision failed to reach any such insights into Massenet's score. Almost as if he were embarrassed by raw sentiment, Ponnelle distilled the action into objective sets that resemble framed prints from the period. For the inn courtyard and the Cours-la-Reine, this works well enough: for the barnlike Paris apartment and austere St. Sulpice, it exerts a dampening effect. The compartmentalized Hôtel de Transylvanie belabors the obvious image of gambling as a mechanical, obsessive pursuit, and the final episode, cluttered with trash at the foot of a bluff along the coast, dwarfs the intimacy of the lovers' last moments together.

Ruth Ann Swenson, having recently sung one of Manon's musical forebears, Gounod's Juliette, evidently worked with care on the details of Massenet's multifaceted portrayal. In the Amiens scene, she registered the right amalgam of fatigue, confusion and excitement; in the Paris apartment, the girl's conflicting emotions flew off at tangents around a central core of regret, which finally emerged in "Adieu, notre petite table"; in the Cours-la-Reine, her superficial delight gradually dissolved into regret again, leading to her most demanding scene, the seduction of des Grieux in the chapel at St. Sulpice. Perhaps Swenson's characterization wasn't yet all of a piece in its transitions from one flighty state to another, but the states themselves were presented with assurance and credible conviction.

As des Grieux, Giuseppe Sabbatini kept his tenor in tight focus, tracing the line elegantly. The difficult attack at a piano volume level on "Ah! fuyez, douce image" he handled in exemplary fashion, and his growing emotional engagement in Manon's plight built up to a final scene of intensity without violating the framework of Massenet's style. Roberto de Candia's carefree Lescaut made less than expected of "Rosalinde" ("A quoi bon l'économie") at the Cours-la-Reine but conveyed the character's amusing indignation in matters of family "honor." Kim Josephson portrayed a hearty Brétigny with no illusions about Manon's potential for constancy. An authentic French stylist, Michel Sénéchal showed how, without any breach of socially, vocally or histrionically correct behavior, Guillot could assert himself with ruinous consequences. Julius Rudel's long familiarity with the score elicited its softness, irony and piquancy, despite a few patches of approximate coordination, and despite Ponnelle's oddly cool stage picture.


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