On Thursday evening, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister to Saint Paul to attend a Minnesota Opera performance of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”.
The performance was disappointing.
Michael Christie’s conducting lacked the drive and sweep Puccini’s score requires, and the orchestra was too small—sixty players—to produce the radiance of sound that is an essential part of Puccini’s sound world. Minnesota Opera uses what is, in effect, a pickup orchestra, and on Thursday evening the sounds emanating from the pit were those of a pickup ensemble. No one who has heard Puccini’s earliest masterpiece played by a real orchestra would have found the work of the instrumentalists used by Minnesota Opera anything other than proficient.
“Manon Lescaut” was the fourth opera I have heard Christie conduct at Minnesota Opera, and I have become less impressed each time I have encountered his work. Christie is, I fear, a modern-day Cal Stewart Kellogg: a conductor whose skill level will always confine him to engagements with regional enterprises.
Minnesota’s home-grown diva, the locally-ubiquitous Kelly Kaduce, sang Manon. Kaduce is an effective stage animal, but she lacks a first-class instrument (as well as the heft the role of Manon requires). If watching a silent film, I would have found Kaduce’s portrayal of Manon worthy of some respect. Hearing Kaduce’s Manon was another matter—it was a reaffirmation of the reason why Kaduce, with a career almost two decades old, has never been touched by a major house: her voice is insufficiently fine for a major theater to offer her even the tiny role of the madrigal singer in the same opera.
The other cast members were even less impressive than Kaduce. The des Grieux surely needed five more years of study before being unloosed on the world, and the remainder of the cast list displayed a level of artistry to be encountered at minor music conservatories. I cannot recall the last time I attended a Minnesota Opera presentation in which the casting had been so poor; Minnesota Opera’s “Manon Lescaut” was regional opera at its worst.
The physical production had been rented from Washington Opera, and I had seen the production at its unveiling in Washington in 2004. Although fairly elaborate, the production is not a handsome one—the colors are garish, and the designs are a hackneyed blend of realism and surrealism. Given the unattractive color scheme, the costumes are quite good.
During much of the performance, texts from the Prévost novel—in English translation—were projected onto the back of the stage. I presume this was intended to give the audience something to read once the program booklet had been devoured, surely a conciliatory gesture, when one considers how uninteresting were the onstage proceedings.