Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Richard Eyre
Manon Lescaut: Kristine Opolais
Chevalier des Grieux: Roberto Alagna
Géronte de Ravoir: Brindley Sherratt
Lescaut: Masimo Cavalletti
Edmondo: Zach Brichevsky
The famously ill-fated love story of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux bears the unusual distinction of having inspired not one but two operas by major composers, Manon by French Jules Massenet and Manon Lescaut by the Italian Giacomo Puccini (If you don't count Manon Lescaut by the French Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, which in fact came out first). Massenet's version never did much for me, but I was still curious to check out Puccini's. The opportunity finally arose in the Met's current season with no less than established superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann and meteorically rising soprano Kristine Opolais in a modern production by Sir Richard Eyre, which made the offer even harder to resist.
Then a couple of weeks before opening night, the Met announced that Kaufmann was bailing out of the entire run due to unspecified health reasons, but that veteran Met tenor Roberto Alagna was willing to learn the meaty part in two weeks (?!) and take it over. So all was not lost, just different. Therefore, that was in a relatively optimistic state of mind that I joined my friend Steve and Carter in a very full opera house yesterday afternoon.
My main problem with Massenet's Manon lies its uninspired plot, which could easily be summed up as "The brat and the fool" and its equally uninspired, except for a few sparks, score. But I had high hopes for Puccini's take on the story since the Italian master usually does not waste time on French delicacies and goes for a more hot-blooded approach, and we had an appealing cast to make it come alive.
As Manon, Kristine Opolais, one of the most highly regarded sopranos of the moment, lived up to the hype thanks to an irresistible package including a beautiful voice, convincing acting, glamorous looks and commanding charisma. A fiercely committed performer, she turned a character that could have been just another greedy bimbo into a touching young woman lost in love and in life. She gorgeously shone in her truly engrossing duets with Roberto Alagna and her two big arias, "In quelle trine morbide" and "Sola, perduta, abbandonata", soared with the gripping power of lost innocence and heart-felt regret. She was really an all-around delight and a big hit with the audience.
Learning a complex role in only two weeks is no simple feat, and performing it while suffering from the flu cannot but add to the challenge, but Roberto Alagna soldiered on yesterday afternoon. And while some high notes were unsurprisingly strained – A Met employee made an announcement explaining the situation and asking for our understanding during the second intermission – he still resolutely gathered his strength, talent and experience to deliver a des Grieux that was equally passionate and poignant in his hopeless devotion to Manon. His capable rescue of the part and his gallant handshake with the prompter during the curtain call earned him rousing and much deserved ovations.
The rest of the cast was as reliable as they come. English bass Brindley Sherratt was a stern and implacable Géronte, whose appearance was never good news. Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti was a compelling singer as Lescaut, Manon's half-pimp and half-savior of a brother. In his Met debut, American tenor Zach Borichevsky was an engaging Edmondo.
The chorus has added yet another challenging opera under its ever-expending belt, and came off remarkably poised, as usual.
If the singing was satisfying, the production was as puzzling as misguided. Why on earth would a story originally set in the second half of the 18th century be dropped into German-occupied France in the early 1940s, with all the irreconcilable political, social and historical differences it entails?! This production does not offer any answers, but it sure proves that it does not work. While the idea of emphasizing the "film noir" aspect of the narrative is legitimate and worth exploring, there has to be better ways to do it than that. On top of it, the fact that the original libretto contains obvious holes, like no scenes describing Manon's and des Grieux's life together, does not help either.
On the other hand, Puccini's unabashedly lyrical score remains the undisputedly glorious component of the opera, smoothing out the inconsistencies and providing the singers with plenty of colorful melodies to create memorable emotionally-charged moments. Under the direction of Fabio Luisi, the Met orchestra sounded as good as ever, voluptuously unfolding the incandescent lines with powerful force while still making sure to bring out myriad of tiny details.
It is no wonder that Manon Lescaut established Puccini on the international stage and prepared him for even bigger and better things. While Massenet's Manon may make more sense narratively, the more inherently vibrant musical quality of Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it the winner in my view. All it needs is a decent production.