French Kiss

It was not a glamorous premiere and few of the beautiful people were there, but the evening when the Metropolitan Opera brought its fourteen-year-old production of Manon back into the repertory will probably be one of my fonder memories of the current season. Perhaps that’s partly because each time Massenet’s adorable opera returns, the Met upgrades the cast and Peter McClintock continues to sharpen and fine-tune the stage action, a vast improvement over the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s original, oddly faceless direction.

The major surprise is Ruth Ann Swenson in the title role. Yes, this soprano, when she is in form, charms the ear with a lovely, satin-smooth voice and a formidable coloratura technique. But she also tends to be a maddeningly bland singer, deficient in expressive range and dramatic specificity, which has made her recent excursions into the heavier bel canto, Verdi, and Puccini operas deadly dull. I can’t say that her Manon is exactly prismatic or that she explores every facet of this self-destructive coquette and her lightning mood changes. Still, Swenson’s characterization has few blank moments, and she shapes the music with a seductive tenderness that is likely to meet with the approval of even the most exacting Manon connoisseurs.

Better yet is Giuseppe Sabbatini in his Met debut as Des Grieux. This Italian tenor makes something of a specialty of French opera, and the slight nasal buzz, tightly focused tone, and articulate clarity of his voice are certainly to the manner born. Although not a large sound, it projects clearly, even when reduced to a whispered pianissimo; everything about this distinguished interpretation, visually as well as vocally, is elegantly refined without any loss of virility or presence. The most distinguished Italian interpreters of Des Grieux in my experience have included Giuseppe di Stefano and Cesare Valletti, and Sabbatini definitely belongs in their company. Paul Plishka (Count des Grieux) and Roberto de Candia (Lescaut) sound rather rough opposite these two suave protagonists, but no serious damage is done. Few musicians find more lyrical grace and rhythmic buoyancy in Manon than Julius Rudel, who, at 80, leads a performance as fresh and vigorous as the ones he conducted for Beverly Sills at the City Opera more than 30 years ago.

The second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians looks imposing up there on the shelf. Published at a list price of $4,850, this classic reference tool contains 29 volumes, 25 million words, and 29,499 articles by more than 6,000 contributors from 98 countries, and it weighs in at 118.9 pounds. Needless to say, this will be a limited report – I’ve lived with both the print and online versions for just a few weeks, and there is still much to digest between A (“A preposition found particularly in 16th- and 17th-century editions of polyphonic music …”) and Zywny, Wojciech; 1756-1842 (“Polish piano teacher and composer of Bohemian origin …”). Come to think of it, I never quite finished exploring the “old” New Grove, which appeared in 1980 and now seems skimpy at a mere twenty volumes.

It’s probably safe to say that Sir George Grove, who labored over his first four-volume dictionary of music between 1878 and 1890, would be astonished at how his child has grown over the past century. Unlike the 1980 edition, which threw out nearly everything contained in its 1954 predecessor and started over from scratch, the latest Grove both expands and updates existing material while taking a fresh look at many basic areas of global music. More and better were obviously the editorial watchwords.

Numerous lengthy biographies, work lists, and bibliographies devoted to the giants of Western music – Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartók, Handel, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Monteverdi, and many others – have been newly written to reflect the latest scholarly findings and ever-changing attitudes toward these composers, while countless standard topics are also reconsidered and reappraised.

Many new subjects are examined: postmodernism, gay and lesbian music, borrowing, nationalism, even spoofs (Stanley Sadie, the Grove’s editor, still winces at the mention of Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup, 1803-1891, a fictitious Danish musician that a playful colleague planted in the last edition). Styles and genres, technical terms and forms, the musical histories of virtually every country and major city on earth, the aesthetics and psychology of music, music education and musicology, performance practices, theory and analysis, musical instruments, musicians’ biographies, and work lists – the sheer scope of the dictionary is now more breathtaking than ever. To get an idea of just how much the Grove covers, glance through Volume 29, an 813-page index designed as a practical guide as well as as an aid for curious readers who simply want to browse.

Only continued usage can test the editors’ ambitious goal of encompassing music of every time, every place, and every type. One complaint about the 1980 Grove was the feeling that, despite the attention given to world music, pop, and jazz, the overall tone of the dictionary tended to lack historical perspective and isolate itself from nonmusical cultures. That issue has now been addressed, and if the essays on such new subjects as deconstruction, feminism, Marxism and Nazism, gender, and other hot-button topics stir up controversy, so much the better.

Homer nodded occasionally, and so does Grove. I’m disappointed that my own field did not get better treatment. The article on music criticism since 1945 is a rare lapse, a skewed, self-serving effort by Edward Rothstein, who shamelessly promotes himself and leaves many important issues unaddressed. The criteria that decree who among the living are to be included and who omitted often seem arbitrary or a result of partisan politics: Dropping impresario-conductor Sarah Caldwell, who had an entry in 1980 and contributed so much to the opera scene in the sixties and seventies, strikes me as deplorable, while giving a minor vocal talent like Ashley Putnam equal space with Eleanor Steber, one of America’s greatest singers, is positively eccentric.

The most dramatic innovation of the new edition is its online availability (www. The immediate advantage is economic for those who can’t afford the print edition: Individual online subscriptions cost $295 annually or $30 per month, while hourly access is available through the Grove’s MetroPass. Another plus of the electronic version is editorial flexibility, essential in living-composer entries, which are by nature outdated the moment they appear. Right now, the plan is to update straightforward facts on a quarterly basis, while areas that the editors feel require revision or entirely new articles will be considered annually. And, of course, any errors that crept into the print edition will be corrected as they are found. I have discovered a few minor ones, but the biggest gaffe so far – a large chunk missing from Stravinsky’s work list – has already been seen to, and purchasers of the books will receive a reprint of the full list.

Whether the electronic Grove will eventually make future print editions unnecessary remains to be seen. The online version offers many benefits beyond its affordability: sophisticated search facilities, a browser function designed for the nonspecialist, links to related topics in the dictionary as well as to other Internet sites, even brief sound files to identify instruments. Some will always feel more comfortable and focused with a book than a screen, but in whatever form one consults it, and despite inevitable flaws, the latest Grove more than lives up to pianist Alfred Brendel’s eloquent description: “A library, a source of stimulation, a sparring partner, a mirror to live with …”

It’s amazing that Ernest Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus turns up so seldom, even on connoisseurs’ wish lists. Leave it to Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra to bring this luminous opera to our attention, which they did recently in Avery Fisher Hall. A man of broad culture as well as a composer of strength and originality, Chausson used the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere to express his own singular vision of tragic love, moral responsibility, and a better world.

Completed in 1895, the score was automatically branded Wagnerian, and that influence is undeniable. What’s truly astonishing, though, is how far Chausson managed to distance himself from Wagner to fashion a distinctive, contained rhapsodic language that sounds like no one else’s – there can be few musical apotheoses more ecstatic than the one in this opera, as the dying Arthur is transported to Avalon. Botstein, clearly a man with a mission, conducted a performance that was both a labor of love and skill, while the three principal singers – Andrew Schroeder, Hugh Smith, and Nicolle Foland – sang with the commitment and expressive fire that is precisely what this gorgeous music requires.

The Massenet opera, conducted by Julius Rudel, at the Metropolitan Opera.
The New Grove Dictionary
Le Roi Arthus
The opera by Chausson, conducted by Leon Botstein at Avery Fisher Hall.

French Kiss