'Manon' at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera's final new production of the season, Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" heralds the return of old-fashioned values in operatic stagings, and is proof again that the best opera production is one wherein the composer's wishes are meticulously respected, one which does not hamper the singers, and does not succumb to the distortions of a director's concept.

Gian Carlo Menotti is no stranger to Puccini's telling of the Abbe Prevost story Jules Massenet had turned into one of the most successful French operas of all time. Menotti staged a highly acclaimed version of it at his Spoleto Festival. Clearly, he loves the score, knows it inside out, and trusts Puccini the way an opera composer of Menotti's dramatic skill and flair should.

On Desmond Heeley's exceptionally well-designed, well-conceived sets, this is a lush, opulent, naturalistic staging, complete with stage coach and horses in Act 1, an appropriately gaudy, overwrought boudoir for the ostentatious Geronte's home in Act 2. The third act is one of the best single sets at the Met -- a tight, forward-pushing series of walls, steps, and prison bars that not only define the wharves of Le Havre, but enable the chorus to be naturally near the footlights for the all-important procession of deported ladies. For once, they were not merely planted there, as tends to be the case in Met staging these days.

Vocally, it proved a satisfying evening, if not quite up to the standards one has come to expect from Renata Scotto or Placido Domingo (five years ago, they would have been definitive as Manon and Des Grieux). But in today's world of waning standards wherein anyone can sing anything, it was as good a cast as can be had.

Scotto and Domingo are both uncommonly fine actors, and Pablo Elvira as Lescaut is not far behind in histrionic persuasiveness. Scotto in particular is in tune to every nuance, communicating moment to moment the emotional shifts and turns of Puccini's impulsive, youthful, flightly heroine. If occasionally it lacks true spontaneity, it always contains enough authority and insight that one could forgive a pinched high "C" or an inaudible pianissimo.

Domingo is not so specific an actor. Rather, he finds wonderfully compatible all the roles that allow him free reign as a Latin lover. His singing is ardent , secure (though the highest notes are becoming distressingly tight and disproportionately loud), and with a Scotto to play off of, he comes to the fore as the best of his kind today. For together, even though they do not suggest youth, they generate the sort of electricity one needs to make the ardent duets of the opera take wing.

Mr. Elvira held his own with winning tenacity. His baritone is not the largest around, but it is exceedingly even and well used from top to bottom. Renato Capecchi's Geronte was a marvelous characterization of a silly old fool.

Having elicited these uncommonly well acted performances, Mr. Menotti also gave the chorus something of a revitalization and a sense of the chorus as individuals.

In the pit, James Levine set a new standard in Puccini conducting -- not in recent (or not so recent) memory has a score sounded so fresh, so colorful, so superbly alive to everything Puccini put into his score. (How fortunate that this production was chosen for the Met's first live telecast last Saturday.) 'Tosca' and 'Pasquale'

Another sort of standard was set in the Met's second-cast "Tosca," complete with different conductor Nello Santi. He is considered a singer's conductor, though he gave no evidence of really listening to his singers for most of the evening, nor did he find anything more in the Puccini score than a beginning, middle, and end to be hurried through at optimum volume and tempo.

Matteo Manuguerra's Scarpia was rather contained, but wonderfully well sung. Ermanno Mauro, his usual stolid actorly self as Cavarodossi, continues to sing some phrases beautifully, in a wildly inconsistent performance.

Carol Neblett becomes so consumed with vocal output that characterization utterly drops from her visage and body, and she does not make much of an effort to disguise her American roots.

The revival of the John Dexter production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" is so small-scaled, so reserved, so limited in projection as to be virtually ineffectual. Italo Tajo is a funny man, and in a cast of true luminaries and dazzling personalities, this veteran's Pasquale might have worked, but here he simply melded into the threadbare vocalfabric.

Richard Stillwell's youthful Malatesta projects not much farther than the prompter's box, David Rendall's tenor lacks the high "D" flat he chooses to attempt in the second act, and lacks a true control of modulation and lyrical line to make the required effect in Ernesto's elegant and often passionate music. Roberta Peters brings her familiar soubrette sparkle and incessant cheeriness to her Norina, but vocally the ability to differentiate in dynamic level and allow a sense of reserve for big moments is now beyond her, as are long seamless phrases. But one longs not to have to strain to hear each note, either from Miss Peters and from most of the singers on stage. Nicola Rescigno was the stalwart conductor.

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