Met Opera Odds and Ends: ‘Carmen,’ ‘Manon,’ and the World According to Opera

Yesterday and Today

Diana Damrau as Manon & Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Diana Damrau as Manon & Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux in Manon (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

What relevance does opera have for present-day audiences? How can lovers of the operatic art (and everyday working stiffs) identify with the centuries old foibles of Carmen or Manon? What attributes do such characters have that mimic the troubles of modern life? What problems do they share that can either enlighten or expand upon the difficulties we face today? And finally, what life lessons do they offer that can make sense of our own turbulent times?

These are the challenges that opera companies everywhere are facing. But how are these challenges being met? Over the past 30 some-odd years, the trend has been to present works in modern dress, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. While at first glance this may appear to address the “relevancy” issue, little can be done to change the original setting or plot. Although a number of directors have tried (heaven help us) to do justice to this approach, many have failed in their attempts to make relevancy fashionable. And, to be perfectly honest, updating an opera’s time period or performing it in contemporary clothing only draws attention to the incongruities inherent in this bit of over-simplification.

If directors can do no more than put new clothes on old forms, how will opera survive into the new millennium? What future, if any, does the art form have? Everyone knows that opera, along with video games and big-budget movies, are the world’s most expensive diversion. With video games and movies, there is always a method of breaking even, if not obtaining an outright profit overall. But with opera, no such guarantees exist. In fact, opera has always been and forever will be a money-losing proposition. So why do people continue to indulge in its luxuries?

The answer is: for love of the form; for love of the singing; for love of the stagecraft; and for love of the music. Music can speak louder than words, even though in opera words play an equal part in the formula. Dress, sets, dance, wigs, costumes, background and front projections, digital recreations, offstage effects — whatever tickles a director’s fancy have all been utilized to make opera as relevant to our values as they were when these works were first produced.

The New Becomes the Old

The Metropolitan Opera — that formerly staid organization, a lumbering giant of the performing arts — has been producing operatic works of late that, as noted in previous posts, have pushed open the sticky envelope of the traditionally ossified repertoire and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into the postmodern age.

Such rarely staged pieces as Shostakovich’s The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Iolanta, and Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, in addition to Met Opera premieres of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as new works by Thomas Adès (The Tempest) and Nico Mulhy (Two Boys), and thoroughly reworked and/or re-imagined productions by Anthony Minghella of Madama Butterfly and François Girard’s Parsifal, have conspired to add luster to the company’s ranks, courtesy of General Manager Peter Gelb’s farsighted vision.

But not everything the Met has churned out has been a critical or financial success. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Luc Bondy’s hideous miscalculation with Tosca was an out-and-out disaster, and the highly anticipated Ring cycle by Robert Lepage, who earlier provided an acclaimed presentation of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, hit a brick wall with Wagner’s opus. You can’t win ‘em all, I always say. More recently, the new production of the perennial double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (to be reviewed later) illustrated the good and bad aspects of tinkering with time periods.

Elina Garanca as Carmen (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Elina Garanca as Carmen in Act II (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Two of the company’s earlier entries, i.e., Richard Eyre’s Franco-era version of Bizet’s Carmen from 2010, and Laurent Pelly’s boxy 2012 staging of Massenet’s Manon, epitomize the points I’ve been trying to make about what can or cannot be done via the Met’s modernization efforts. The Massenet work was heard in the live Saturday broadcast of March 21, while Bizet’s opera came first on March 7.

In Manon, we had a far superior cast than that of the premiere. When this production was new in 2012, Anna Netrebko sang the Marilyn Monroe-like Manon, with Piotr Beczała as Des Grieux and Paulo Szot as Lescaut. All three principals did their histrionic best within the clunkiness of Pelly’s bland sets. Vocally, Netrebko was off her best form, while Beczała’s essentially lyric instrument was severely over-extended.

The latest cast, however, starred the robust-voiced German soprano Diana Damrau as Manon, the startlingly emotional Chevalier des Grieux of Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, and Russell Braun as Lescaut, along with Nicolas Testé as Count des Grieux, Christophe Mortagne as Guillot, the dependable Dwayne Croft as Brétigny, Mireille Asselin as Poussette, Cecelia Hall as Javotte, Maya Lahyani as Rosette, and Robert Pomakov as the Innkeeper. The Met orchestra was presided over by Emmanuel Villaume.

The cast of Carmen featured knockout Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča as the gypsy Carmen, soprano Ailyn Pérez as the girl back home Micaela, bass-baritone Gábor Bretz as sexy bullfighter Escamillo, bass Richard Bernstein as the officer Zuniga, and substituting for the originally announced Jonas Kaufmann as Carmen’s lover Don José was Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee. The conductor was Louis Langrée.

The Rain in Spain…

Bringing Spanish-style fascism and Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who makes a belated appearance in the Act IV promenade) into the picture of what is essentially a retelling of a love affair gone wrong — with a concentration on the titular heroine Carmen, who no man can fully possess, and her unstable beau José, an army officer with homicidal tendencies — did little to enhance what is already a pretty tawdry tale.

Garanca as Carmen in Act I

Garanca as Carmen in Act I: the “Habanera”

In Prosper Mérimée’s novel, Don José has murdered Carmen out of jealousy. He relives the story in flashback from his prison cell. In the opera, we learn much about José’s past and his violently explosive nature (his having killed a man, for one) through extensive dialogue passages that have traditionally been cut from Carmen, but which were reinstated by the Met almost 40 years ago.

For this production, they’ve reverted to the old Ernest Guiraud-composed recitatives, which today sound about as incompatible with Bizet’s splendid score as they did nearly two generations prior. Notwithstanding that observation, the cast turned in a most credible performance, especially that of the standout tenor Lee. His powerful stage portrayal and mellifluous singing as Don José, with a beautifully executed “Flower Song” and extraordinarily impassioned last act duet, won the day. In my opinion, Lee salvaged the performance with his Corelli-like trumpet of a voice, all but erasing memories of the indisposed Kaufmann — not an easy thing to do in these surroundings. Lee was also scheduled to sing in the live broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo, a performance I did not want to miss.

Garança’s expertly played Carmen stressed the smaller, less showier aspects of the part, lingering over key phrases (a languorously delivered “Habañera” for one, an earthy-toned “Card Trio” for another) and basically toning down the overt displays of hip-swinging sexiness often associated with past exponents. I did miss the dark and dusky chest tones some Carmens have brought to the role. Still, my own thought is that, while voluptuous in the extreme, Elīna’s voice is a shade too light for this assignment, at least on the radio; that she would sound more comfortable singing it in an auditorium smaller than the Met’s.

Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose, with Garanca as Carmen (Howard/Met Opera)

Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose, with Garanca as Carmen (Howard/Met Opera)

Ms. Pérez’s lyrically capable Micaela was warm and affecting, while Mr. Bretz’s fine toreador could have shown more personality than it did. As for the conductor, Langrée tore into the prelude as if he were in a race with the cast to finish the opera before it began. Speeding things along may exude a sense of urgency to the proceedings, but a more measured approach in the early going (where Bizet took his time to give us some marvelous local color and Spanish tone painting) can set the scene or mood better than a faster clip.

Leave it to the French

Getting down to Manon, we are looking at a work which, much like its predecessor Carmen, features extensive dialogue underscored with snippets of music. Not exactly what was known at the time as opéra-comique, Jules Massenet’s Manon (which premiered in 1884) is not exactly grand opera either but a carefully constructed combination of both forms.

Having an excellent grasp of the French language and style is but one of the many demands required of artists willing to tackle this charming yet subtle work. It’s less of an emotional roller-coaster ride than, say, Puccini’s own version of the same story, Manon Lescaut, written less than a decade later in 1893, but no less compelling. Incidentally, Carmen made its debut in 1875, a good nine years before Manon made its initial appearance.

The basis for both Carmen and Manon rests on one thing and one thing only: the promise of illicit sex and its dubious aftermath. How relevant is that? Young people in love, or in lust, with one another, flaunting society’s scruples and themselves to the four winds. It couldn’t get any better, now, could it?

With an earlier work such as Gounod’s Faust, it was the male protagonist who was deemed responsible for corrupting the morals of the young and innocent Marguerite. But in Massenet, it’s the supposedly innocent Manon (or the worldly seductress Carmen in Bizet) who corrupts the naïve men around her, thus bringing about both their downfalls. When Puccini got around to Manon, he saw the issue as the inevitable coming together of both sexes, both taking responsibility for their actions and for the unlucky turn of events.

The story goes that Puccini, unencumbered by any personal attachment to France or to the French setting of the story, allowed his Manon Lescaut to die a miserable death in America. Addio! On the other hand, Massenet, that most quintessential of French spirits, couldn’t bear to have his heroine expire on foreign soil. Going against the grain (and the original novel’s intent), he insisted that Manon die in the arms of her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, without having boarded the ship for the New World. Ah, those sentimental Frenchmen!

Diana Damrau in the Cours la Reine scene of Manon (Ken Howard)

Diana Damrau in the Cours la Reine scene of Manon (Ken Howard)

To make this opera come alive, the Met had a real barnburner of a cast relive the parts of Manon and Des Grieux. As much as she tried, diva Damrau could not completely convince me of her Gallic disposition. However, and this was the key, her singing was above and beyond anything I’ve heard in this role. The coloratura displays, the sparks and fireworks she generated in the Cours la Reine and St. Sulpice sequences, along with a tender touch of melancholy in her farewell to her “petite table,” brought a tear to the eye.

She was superbly partnered by Grigolo, who gave one of the most impassioned performances of this young artist’s career as an incredibly enamored Des Grieux. While his “Ah fuyez, douce image” taxed him to the extreme of his register, he kept up a steady flow of lyricism that carried him through to the end. At the moment of Manon’s death, Grigolo let out a painful howl of grief that touched the audience’s heartstrings, if going counter to what the composer would have wanted at this point: that is, a mood of aristocratic restraint amid sorrow for the girl’s untimely demise.

The Seduction Scene from Act III of Manon: Grigolo & Damrau

The Seduction Scene from Act III of Manon: Grigolo & Damrau

Russell Braun’s burly-textured Lescaut, Dwayne Croft’s excellent Brétigny and Nicolas Testé’s sonorous Count brought prestige to these parts. The others in the cast acquitted themselves nobly, and Villaume’s conducting was an exercise in how to perform a French piece with all the drive and fervor called for, without sacrificing the lyric line. The only thing missing for a truly successful outing was an intriguing visual representation to make it all work as drama.

Having seen this production in the Live in HD series on television when it was new, I can vouch for its sheer ugliness and lack of a defining theme. Though the story is similar in many respects to Verdi’s La Traviata (good boy meets bad girl, they fall in love and live in sin; good boy’s father tries to break them up, complications ensue, both ultimately reunite in love; bad girl is forgiven, bad girl dies) — which, coincidentally or not, is also set in France — Pelly’s use of a red dress to distinguish Manon from the other women is far too reminiscent of Willy Decker’s own concept for his deconstructed Traviata. Besides that, it was positively drained of color and insight.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In this case, I found the production as a whole ineffective and derivative and not particularly inspiring. It was Regietheater at its worst, and that’s the best that I can say for it.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes