There are ups and downs to the freelancing life, and one of the latter is sometimes having to work on holidays. While I did so on Presidents’ Day, I still enjoyed fine theater and music throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, though, I ended with the Metropolitan Opera’s latest dead-on-arrival new production, “Manon Lescaut.” In the immortal words of every baseball manager who ever lived, “You can’t win ’em all.”
Fortunately my weekend kickoff was “Old Hats,” a return engagement of the 2013 show starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Although I wasn’t previously familiar with David Shiner’s work, I feel like Bill Irwin and I go way back. I remember him as the mime Enrico Ballati on “Northern Exposure,” and was fortunate to see his Tony-winning performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner (the corrosive look those two exchanged after his “get the guests” game will remain with me forever).
“Old Hats” predictably begins with Irwin and Shiner one-upping each other in a hat routine; what follows is one cleverly outlandish sequence after another. What is most striking about the evening’s entertainment is how fresh and spontaneous they made everything seem, even after working together for twenty years. You’d think a routine featuring two politicians engaged in debate would be a yawner, but aside from the timeliness during this election year, how quickly they responded to each other became its own source of delight.
My favorite sequence in “Old Hats” consisted of an act featuring an over-the-hill magician (Shiner) and his blowsy blonde assistant (Irwin in drag). He goes into a disco move every time something goes wrong (which is frequently); she looks daggers at the young female “volunteer” from the audience who’s about to be sawed in half. In short this is a compilation of every bad act that ever appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and I could not stop laughing. Equally good is Shiner’s take on silent cowboy movies, featuring a cast recruited from the audience. Whether some or all of these people were plants is immaterial—Shiner’s inventiveness was amazing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.
While Irwin and Shiner are for the most part silent throughout, Shaina Taub and her band who supply the music, songs and occasional sound effects fortunately are not. This is clowning at its finest, and I can’t recommend “Old Hats” highly enough.
Had Jonas Kaufmann not cancelled his appearance in the Met’s new production of “Manon Lescaut,” the approach taken by director Richard Eyre might have worked, at least in part. Instead we were left with an ill-conceived staging that did few favors for the spirit of the work. By the end of the opera it seemed apparent that the only heroes of the night were Puccini and conductor Fabio Luisi.
Eyre set this production in Occupied France, ostensibly because he feels “Manon Lescaut” has a noirish tone. Certainly he can’t get this from the music—Act I just pops with youth and springtime. To say it killed the joy to see the stage populated with German soldiers is an understatement. Their presence begged so many questions: How could the crowd at the outdoor cafe get away with taunting them en masse? Why would the Wehrmacht, not the gendarmerie, come to arrest Manon for common theft? Any deportations during World War II would have been to the death camps, not to the swamps of Louisiana envisioned by Puccini, Massenet (composer of the earlier Manon) or even Abbé Prévost, author of the 1731 novel on which both operas are based. While I usually enjoy updated opera—I particularly liked Eyre’s own “Le Nozze di Figaro” set during the “Regle du jeu” 1930’s—the setting has to serve the work and the intentions of the composer and librettist. It did not do so here.
Jonas Kaufmann’s participation would have wall-papered over some of the shortcomings of Eyre’s approach. At least he and Kristine Opalais (Manon) would have had chemistry. Unfortunately with Roberto Alagna as des Grieux, we were stuck with two hard-working professionals who simply didn’t relate to each other. In fact despite the bedroom scene in the second act, there was no discernible heat on stage until Act III, when the lovers’ plight became desperate. I was also bothered by Eyre’s view of Manon. Simply putting Opalais in a Veronica Lake wig and silk negligee does not supply motivation for the character. Mirella Freni was the first Manon Lescaut I ever saw onstage, and though she probably wouldn’t have seen 60 again at that point, she had a firm view of the character that was expressed from within. She let you know in Act II that Manon had her bitchy side, but more than that, the character enjoyed showing it. Opalais could reach that watermark, but in a different production of “Manon Lescaut” that doesn’t saddle her with such a wrong directorial concept.
My advice is to stay home and listen to the radio broadcast on March 5. Fabio Luisi leads a sympathetic reading of the score, the singers tend to the musical side of things in good form and you won’t be distracted by all the nonsense that transpires on stage.
Every so often it’s refreshing to leave the standard Italian/French/German vocal repertoire for works from other cultural traditions. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s recent album “Preludios” presents some wonderfully ear-catching Spanish song, including de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” and Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras”; her performance of the latter is worth the price of the CD alone.
The Catalonian Xavier Montsalvage composed this cycle in 1946, and its reliance on both Spanish and Cuban styles resulted in the composer’s best-known work. I’ve loved this from first hearing via a Victoria de los Angeles song anthology. Her version had symphonic accompaniment; Miss Leonard is partnered by the talented pianist Brian Zeger. The high point of both song cycle and CD is without question her performance of “Canción de cuña para dormir a un negrito.” Leonard takes this work with its unusual sliding chromaticism at a markedly slower tempo than de los Angeles—it’s a lullaby after all. This, in addition to the progressively softer dynamic, serves to underscore the beauty of the alluring melody and the lovely sound of Leonard’s voice. The result is absolutely stunning. The exuberant “Canto negro” follows to end this expressive song cycle.