Plenty of Gallic grace, but a lack of passion

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The mighty Met inaugurated its season last Monday with the usual brouhaha, conspicuous social consumption and some operatic vaudeville, writes Martin Bernheimer.

The first item on the programme – a bit of this and a bit of that – was Act One of Le Nozze di Figaro, with Bryn Terfel impersonating the amiable former barber of Seville and James Levine, the resident übermaestro, serving Mozart in the pit.

Terfel returned, now nasty, as Scarpia in Act Two of good old Tosca, with Angela Gheorghiu flourishing her special brand of prima-donna glamour as the protagonist. Finally there was Act Three of Samson
et Dalila
, complete with
ballet bustle and billowing bacchanal.

The original plan promised Plácido Domingo, still the world’s busiest sexagenarian and most ubiquitous tenorissimo, as both Cavaradossi and Samson. Relative modesty prevailed in the end, however, and Mario Berti inherited Puccini’s stentorian cries of “Vittoria”. Domingo remained content to make Saint-Saëns’ walls come tumbling down, in tandem with Denyce Graves as the sexy former barber of Gaza. Another opening, another show.

The company got down to serious business on Tuesday. Frivolity was finished. Everything, of course, is relative. The vehicle turned out to be Massenet’s glorious marron glacé of an opera, Manon. At its stylish best it represents a precarious fusion of Gallic grace and prime passion. This revival, unfortunately, served the former better than the latter.

The imbalance began in the pit. Returning after a 27-year absence, Jesús López-Cobos conducted like an artist uninspired. He enforced neatness and gentility at every juncture yet mustered little power and less drama. One longed for the golden days of Julius Rudel, who had sustained equal parts pathos and panache in 2001 when he led the last revival while celebrating his 80th birthday.

Ironically, the aura of musical placidity found a reflection in the lavish let’s-pretend sets created in 1987 by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a year before his untimely death at 56. Picturesque, literally to a fault, these ever-clever decors invoke antique lithographs. As such they frame the action, and the inaction, in a pretty but patently artificial milieu.

Ponnelle’s elegant costumes reveal colour-coding, sometimes for primitive effect. Manon suddenly models a crimson gown at Saint Sulpice when she seduces Des Grieux, the ardent chevalier turned stuffy abbé in black. Ponnelle’s staging-scheme, again faithfully recreated by Peter McClintock, makes good sense on its own fluid, essentially literal terms. Still, urgency remains scarce.

If the singers wanted to generate any heat, they had to do so pretty much on their own. Renée Fleming looked exquisite, pointed the text deftly, sounded radiant in moments of repose and exerted considerable brilliance in ascending climaxes. Still, her tone weakened and turned breathy at the lower depths, and one missed the crucial illusion of spontaneity as she traced Manon’s progress from waif to vamp to victim.

Marcelo Álvarez, her somewhat phlegmatic partner, brought a nice, healthy ring to Des Grieux’s outbursts of desperation. He also tried conscientiously, if not always mellifluously, to reduce dynamic levels when introspection outweighed heroism. Jean-Luc Chaignaud introduced a remarkably debonair, authentically French Lescaut whose incisive diction made the other principals resemble foreigners. Julien Robbins stressed lyrical sensitivity over basso profundity in the lofty platitudes of Des Grieux père. Widely admired as Rameau’s amorous little wood-nymph Platée, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt seemed miscast as the malevolent Guillot.

Even with a superstar in the title role, and a score brimming with hum-along tunes, the house yawned with empty seats on the second night of the season. It wasn’t a promising sign.

Martin Bernheimer

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