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Massenet’s ‘Manon’ at the MetBY: Steve Cohen 04.17.2012
When Anna Netrebko as the shameless Manon seduces Des Grieux the priest, the chemistry is hotter than Carmen’s seduction of Don José. She was in terrific voice too, even though the action made it hard to focus on the singing.
Manon. Opera by Jules Massenet; Laurent Pelly directed; Gary Halvorsen directed for TV; Fabio Luisi, conductor. Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Broadway and 65th St., New York. Cinema encore April 25, 2012. www.metoperafamily.org.
Those thighs, that bosom, that voiceSTEVE COHEN
Manon is thought of as a charming opera, a perfumed peek at a world of powdery wigs and sugary frills, circa 1731, when Abbé Prévost invented the tale.
But I don’t see it that way, and neither did director Laurent Pelly in the Met’s recent production.
This is, after all, a gritty story about a 15-year-old who runs away from home and shacks up with a young man named Des Grieux, then leaves him to become a call girl and a companion of gamblers. It’s a timeless tale, with special relevance in today’s world of luxurious excess by the wealthiest one percent.
So it makes sense that Pelly updated the period from early 18th to the late 19th Century, when the opera was composed. Thus, instead of wigs we have top hats for the men and Victorian garb for women, projecting an image of stylized regimentation and of women forced to follow rules set by men.
The sets are quirky. The one for Act I, outside an inn near Paris, offers considerable vertical interest. Flanking the inn is a high wall, and above it we can see Parisian rooftops in the distance. This elongated vision is impressive in the Met, with its five tiers of balconies, and it looks interesting on screen too. With the wall towering over the courtyard, one feels imprisoned, which probably is the idea.
Act II’s set shows the small home that Manon and Des Grieux share. Again we see many steps, but this setting doesn’t seem out of place for a modest apartment occupied by a young couple. Act III is set on a Paris boulevard with long ramps that allow ballerinas and marauding gentlemen to move on and off.
Act IV, set in a gambling house, is the most confusing, grotesque and nightmarish, and Manon wears a fuchsia dress that’s obviously a product of more modern times. We can infer that Pelly wanted to show that such behaviors are timeless, but Pelly didn’t make the specific purpose of this set and costume clear. Act V takes place in a deserted wilderness where Manon comes to her end, abandoned by everyone except Des Grieux.
I’m happy to report that Anna Netrebko, in the title role, was at the top of her craft. Netrebko was a bonnet-clad innocent-looking schoolgirl in the introductory scene. Her voice was resonant and pensive, beautiful of sound. She sang that she is high-spirited, and that’s why her parents are sending her to a convent, but bubbly spirits were visual, not aural. While she didn’t sound young enough, she did act like a 15-year-old, skipping and twirling around the stage. If you were listening to a radio broadcast, you could criticize her interpretation as breathy. But on the big screen she was enchanting.
In Act III, Manon was at the height of her popularity and Netrebko looked stunning in a long pink gown with a train. When she paraded along the boulevard, a cadre of top-hatted men followed her in lock step, responding to her every beckoning gesture. It was in this scene that she sang her gavotte in praise of youth and pleasure, with insinuating provocation but with a flat top note.
The second scene of that act was the culmination of the drama. Des Grieux has become a penitent priest, and Manon comes to his church, Saint-Sulpice, to win him back. With a scooped-neck dress, she reveals her bosom while gently touching his face with her fingers. As he begins to weaken, she hitches up her skirt to show attractive thighs, which she eventually wraps around his body as he gives in.
This is hotter chemistry, even, than Carmen seducing Don Jose in the Met’s 2008 production of that opera. Netrebko’s voice, too, had seductive gleam. This was her best singing of the day, although hard to concentrate on.
I found Netrebko miscast as Donna Anna in La Scala’s Don Giovanni last year— not sufficiently assertive for such a bold role— but here she sounded excellent. Whereas Puritani and Anna Bolena taxed Netrebko’s coloratura abilities, she was comfortably secure as Manon. She reveals Manon’s selfish passion for pleasure early on, and appears less a victim than some other Manons I’ve heard.
As Des Grieux, Piotr Beczala was appealing, both in appearance and voice. His instrument isn’t perfect— it loses color and becomes white at the top— but he sings with poise, vocal focus and a good deal of expression. When you add his handsome looks, you have a satisfying portrayal of a decent and long-suffering lover.
Paolo Szot, who sang the male lead in the recent revival of South Pacific, acted and sounded fine as Manon’s brother. David Pittsinger, who replaced Szot on Broadway and on the South Pacific tour, was superbly dignified as Des Grieux’s father. Fabio Luisi conducted with lush sheen.
Massenet was considered one of the best orchestrators of his time. He did indeed create lush textures, but many of his melodies sound insipid. They linger redundantly, trying our patience over the four-hour span of the opera. Much of it sounds like busy-music— marking time between arias. Listen to Bizet’s Carmen, written in the same period, to hear a French opera score with much more bite and vigor.
But when Manon and Des Grieux are alone, or together by themselves, the music soars. In her farewell to her little table, in his dream aria, and in the entire scene in the church of Saint-Sulpice, Massenet wrote the most affecting music of his career. He was vague in his delineation of the larger story, but something in this nice boy/bad girl relationship aroused Massenet’s passion.
Of opera’s three leading ladies who die of consumption— Manon, Violetta and Mimi— Manon definitely is the least sympathetic. But she is fascinating.
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