Mattila’s Manon Misses the Mark; Berio’s Vital, Fractured Sinfonia

platt manon1h Mattila’s Manon Misses the Mark; Berio’s Vital, Fractured SinfoniaNobody who heard Karita Mattila sing the title role of Strauss’s Salome on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2004 production will ever forget it. That she stripped (briefly) nude at the climax of the Dance of the Seven Veils surely helped fuel the fire, but mainly it was stuff of the performance itself, a heady mixture of fearless vocal fireworks and a daringly sexualized dramatic presence. When Ms. Mattila took her bow, a frenzy erupted: Students, scenesters, stockbrokers and socialites were all on their feet, screaming in amazement and delight.

Ms. Mattila was warmly received after the first night of the revival of the Met’s 1980 production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) on Jan. 29, but I doubt that her performance will inspire fevered memories. It has been widely reported that the Met is making a new production of Tosca for the magnificent Finnish soprano in the 2009-10 season, and I think she’ll fit the role of the great diva—from the beginning, a petulant and tempestuous character—better than she did the doe-eyed Manon, the pretty, middle-class French teenager who, brought into a life of luxury in pre-revolutionary Paris, cannot help but destroy Des Grieux, the young student who’s besotted with her.

Her beautifully “cool” Nordic sound may be a detriment in shaping a role that demands warm-blooded Italianate tone color and legato, but there’s no reason why a non-Italian singer can’t make a splash as Manon. To my eyes and ears, Ms. Mattila barely registered dramatically in Act I (the superb Dale Travis, as the old roué Geronte, acted rings around her) and gave a rather tarty and brazen Lulu-type characterization—more redolent of Weimar Germany than the ancien régime—in Act II. Only in the two final, tragic acts was the 47-year-old soprano truly convincing, seeming to bring her own experience as an older and wiser woman to the fore.

Her Des Grieux was Marcello Giordani. When he’s good, this tenor is a kind of latter-day Carlo Bergonzi, a singer whose timbre isn’t memorable but whose style and professionalism are an anchor for any production. The Met is asking a lot of him this year: Not only did he sing Edgardo to Natalie Dessay’s Lucia on the season’s opening night, but the house is bringing him back in March to sing the title role in Verdi’s powerful Ernani, which once belonged to Luciano Pavarotti.

I was looking forward to hearing Mr. Giordani sing at the New Year’s Eve Concert at La Fenice in Venice, but he pleaded illness (and was replaced by the sturdier, no-nonsense tenor Walter Fraccaro). During Act I of Manon Lescaut, I feared that Mr. Giordani still had the same Euro-bug in his throat: His singing was messy and frequently off pitch. But in Act II he somehow got hold of his instrument and used it well for the rest of the night.

This opera, so flawed and yet so thrilling, needs younger singers and a fresh production that will get rid of the kitschy early-80’s glamour of the Met’s current staging and burrow down to the fervid passion of the score. If there was a true streak of giovinezza in the performance, it came from James Levine and his wonderful orchestra, who offered sharp rhythms, sinuous phrases and cashmere textures that maximized the ardor of Puccini’s post-Wagnerian idiom.

 

ITALIAN MUSIC IN the 20th century was inevitably altered by the irresistible wave of modernism, but the lyric warmth and theatrical verve of the Italian tradition survived within it, as the long career of Luciano Berio (1925-2003) shows.

It was the New York Philharmonic that premiered Berio’s most famous work, Sinfonia, in 1968. The once-famous Swingle Singers—the smooth, scat-driven a cappella group that helped provide the soundtrack to the Age of Aquarius—took on the eight amplified vocal parts at the premiere. Last week it was the turn of the frighteningly competent Synergy Vocals group from London. Lorin Maazel, seemingly a little weary from all the Wagner he’s been conducting over at the Met recently, led a firm but dispassionate performance on the night I attended (Jan. 31).

Sinfonia, a work that not only uses texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett but that was shaped by contemporary streams of structuralist and semiotic theory, escapes the expressive prison that enclosed so much music of its time—but only just. Johannes Brahms was also a deeply intellectual composer, but in his eloquent Fourth Symphony, which Maazel conducted smartly after intermission, he never let it show. That’s not so easy anymore.

The composer Steven Stucky, who introduced the performances of Sinfonia, maintains that listeners don’t need a special background “to enjoy it.” I disagree: I think you need a background in the late 1960’s, a vital, destructive and fractured time that helped create an atmosphere for a music that shared the same attributes. To enjoy Berio’s collection of 14 Sequenzas for solo instruments, however, you need only have a love of music, a love that a marathon concert at the Rose Theatre on Feb. 2—by Philharmonic musicians and guest artists—would have extravagantly confirmed.

In a style that dispensed with the comforts of regular phrases and tonal centers, Berio offered up music of coloristic variety, polyphonic brilliance and technical innovations that challenge the most virtuosic of performers—and created the finest suite of unaccompanied pieces since Bach. Among the fine performances I was able to hear, I especially enjoyed the ravishing feast of subtle detail that the flutist Robert Langevin brought out in Sequenza I; the cool mastery and charcoal timbre of the pianist Amy Briggs Dissanayake in Sequenza IV; and the sheer endurance in Sequenza XII of the bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann, who gave a sleek and unruffled cohesion to an unruly bear of a piece.

 

Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. He can be reached at rplatt@observer.com.