Composer: Jules Massenet
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Laurent Pelly
Manon Lescaut : Anna Netrebko
Chevalier Des Grieux: Piotr Beczala
Lescaut, Manon’s cousin: Paolo Szot
Count Des Grieux: David Pittsinger
After seeing my first production of Massenet’s Manon with the Washington National Opera years ago, I had immediately decided that it would be my last one. I simply could not understand the appeal of this wide-eyed country girl dazzled by the Parisian high life and stupid enough to fall in love with a hapless chevalier, who goes on to live a happy life with him, remembers she’s a gold-digger at heart, finds herself a sugar daddy, becomes the top kept woman of Paris, goes back to her hapless chevalier, gets them in trouble with the law because of her (What else?) insatiable greed, and eventually dies a particularly drawn-out death, especially after you’ve sat through four hours of that silliness. And the music did not do much to help.
Enters Anna Netrebko, relentlessly luring everybody walking the streets of New York City in her fuschia dress and abandoned expression on countless posters all over town. I briefly had second thoughts, but still decided against it. Then appeared an invitation to the final dress rehearsal, and I eventually figured that I had not much to lose, except a Friday evening. And who knows? Second chances can have surprising outcomes.
Well, the second chance was whole-heartedly given, and it is now official: Manon remains off my list of preferred operas. Granted, a few nice tunes sprang up from the mostly uninspired score and… well, that’s about it. Oh, I forgot, splendid costumes too.
As the only slightly developed character, Manon is the constant focus of the opera. By now Anna Netrebko is used to being under a steady spotlight, for artistic reasons or not, and she certainly knows how to work it. This production was no exception. But although she has an undeniably charismatic presence onstage, her acting was as usual overly broad and full of pointless energy (she has apparently never seen a flight of stairs without feeling the urge to run it up and down at top speed). Her voice, however, was beautifully dark and richly textured, coloratura technique be damned. Of course, ideally she would bother articulating instead of contending herself with leisurely unrolling those long, impossibly gorgeous phrases. In fact, a puzzled French student approached us during the second intermission wondering if his incapacity to catch even a single word was his problem or hers. Definitely hers. But let’s face it, when she put her heart and soul into the poignant farewell “Adieu, notre petite table”, I remembered why I was in the opera house in the first place, temporarily put aside any misgivings and completely indulged in the moment.
A masterfully articulated singer was the excellent tenor Piotr Beczala as the Chevalier Des Grieux. He even managed to give his character more depth than he probably deserves (I mean, what kind of dork falls so hopelessly in love with such a shallow floozy?) and did it all with the utmost ardor and sincerity. Confidently belting out his dreams of happiness or the depths of his despair, he came out of the evening a real winner. The chemistry between the two leads was rather tepid though, and the awkward seduction scene in the church turned out to be more comical than anything else, so things were far from perfect, but there was definitely some good singing to be enjoyed.
The rest of the cast was praise-worthy as well. Baritone Paulo Szot was as solid as could be in the rather thankless part of Lescaut, Manon’s gambling-addicted cousin. And as Des Grieux’s father, bass-baritone David Pittsinger effortlessly conveys the expected authority and affection towards his lovelorn son.
The sets were a mixed bag. The opening scene’s décor was made of a courtyard and some weirdly angled paper-cut houses on top of some stairs, and it somehow worked. The couple’s modest apartment in Act II seemed straight out of La Bohème and featured, you’ve guessed it, a set of stairs. In Act III the stairs were replaced by a long ramp that turned out to be useful to give more than one level to the stage, but got in the way of the dancers for the ballet number. On the other hand, I thought that the minimalist pier of the final scene did a good job in conveying isolation and doom.
One priceless advantage of most French operas is that the music is often subdued enough to let the audience actually hear the singers, which is not always the case with the more hot-blooded Italian scores or the Sturm und Drang-driven German compositions. Therefore, Fabio Luisi had no problem making sure that the singing would be heard loud and clear above the pleasing sounds from the orchestra, and we got to hear some pretty melodies indeed. Even then, I still find the enduring popularity of this opera utterly baffling, and this time may actually be the last time I have put myself through it.