Beverly Sills Index Page

Manon Video Recording Review

The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Opera on Video, Norton, 1997, p. 128-129. by Conrad L. Osborne

Preserved here are one of the NYCO’s most successful productions, and one of Beverly Sills’s finest roles. Neither is in freshest estate, but enough remains to suggest the quality of the originals. Capobianco’s Fragonard-derived concept (here staged by Gigi Denda, with sets by Marsha Louise Eck) is still handsome. The lighting is pedestrian, and the video production (uncredited, which seems a bit shabby) is best described as solid utilitarian: clearly limited in technical resources, it eschews breathtaking shots or postproduction effects, but follows the action clearly enough. Jose Varona’s costumes are effective, too, though some of them read less well on camera than in the theater.

Sills had all the vocal equipment for the title part: the agility, the high-soprano range extension, and a girlish, floating quality capable of fullness and color. Her grasp of the language and style was also secure. By this date, her vocal command was not what it had been for the production’s premiere or her audio recording of the role. Though the top warms up and gains a better center as the performance proceeds, there is enough unsteadiness and fuzzy intonation to keep the listener nervous. The middle and lower range areas still respond well, the chirpy passages are in place, and of course Sills is too experienced a professional to be knocked far off course. The final scene is well sung and affecting. Theatrically, the early scenes do not come off well. This is a Manon who gives away her hidden treasure with the open, all-purpose smile, the array of little smirks, shrugs, and other such indications-which in any case are directed more at the audience than the onstage males-and who seems entirely comfortable in the great, wide world.

Des Grieux is left with nothing to play against: the mysterious allure that draws him in, the sense of youthful vitality about to be lost to the convent and in need of rescue, aren’t there. Close-ups don’t help. Sills is better later, when she can work with a more serious kind of emotional sincerity and the grander kind of display. Henry Price, her des Grieux, has a tough assignment. Manifestly younger than his putative sixteen-year-old lover, slimmer, and less stagewise, he enters an old production opposite the star for whom the staging was originally devised. As an actor he is pretty much limited to burying his face in his hands and moving with reasonable grace, and his singing hasn’t a wide range of expression, either. But his clear, slender tenor is in good technical balance. He sings with clean line and some finish, has excellent intonation, and goes after the demands of “Ah, fuyez” with a will. Not a star performance, but an honorable one. Elsewhere, there’s a musical-comedy scent to the proceedings.

The actress trio suggests favorites more of Styne, Jule, than Massenet, Jules. Richard Fredricks, the Lescaut, barrels aboard straight out of Shenandoah. On the plus side, he sings with a security and ring that eludes the more nuanced character singers usually given the part. Ramey, in prime form, sings a most imposing Comte. Of course, he’s as young as his son, and the camera reveals age lines that look like cat’s whiskers. The pre-Wotan Robert Hale is unusual casting as De Bretigny, a role traditionally cast with a light baritone (though the most interesting I’ve seen was the fine character bass Gimi Beni). Hale gives it vocal solidity, but not much personality. The only supporting singer with much sense of style and character, Nico Castel, is an excellent Guillot, save in his first approach to Manon, upon whom he descends with the full comprimario complement of splutters, chortles, and throatclearings. Rudel leads a brisk, plainly phrased performance, sometimes rushed (e.g., the whole Lescaut / De Bretigny incursion in Act II), that is musically clear without having much romantic magic. For some reason, we are subjected to every act curtain call, first grin to final wave.