Piotr Beczala being lured by Anna Netrebko/. Photo: Met OperaReviewed by James Karas
The Metropolitan Opera has replaced the lavish Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Jules Massenet’s Manon with a new staging by Laurent Pelly with sets designed by Chantal Thomas. Pelly moves away from the grandiose, realistic sets with huge chandeliers, opulent surroundings and a sense of truly grand opera to a more restrained and relatively Spartan outlook when it comes to the sets. It is a trend that is visible in other productions from the Met such as Tosca, La Traviata and most notably, Wagner’s Ring in the controversial Robert Lepage staging.
Pelly moved the date of the opera from the 18th to the late 19th century and thus got rid of wigs, waistcoats, canes and other paraphernalia and gives us gorgeous dresses for the women and mostly tails and top hats for the men. Paris in the 1890’s is a sensible time period.
The gowns that Pelly designed for Manon and the other ladies are worthy of a fashion show runway and on Anna Netrebko they are simply stunning but let’s concentrate on the opera, shall we?
Anna Netrebko makes a marvelous Manon. Her lustrous voice and the combination of innocence and worldliness in her appearance make for a memorable heroine. She is convincing as an innocent 15-year old on her way to a convent who turns into a siren that lures a priest away from his church.
Her lover is the dashing Chevalier des Grieux (tenor Piotr Beczala). He sings with passion and precision in a fine performance of a man torn between love and religion. She finds him in his church and, unlike Odysseus, des Grieux does not have anyone to tie him to the mast or a church column, and he succumbs to this siren’s song.
The spoiler of Manon’s and des Grieux’s happiness is Manon’s cousin Lescaut (Paulo Szot) who with his friend De Brétigny (Bradley Garvin) abducts des Grieux from the couple’s loft. Manon takes up with the rich De Brétigny. Garvin sings well but what were they thinking when they put that mop of curly hair on top of his head?
The rich and randy Guillot de Morfontaine (Christophe Mortagne) who is after Manon’s pretty, young flesh is played like a character straight out of operetta. At first blush this may be a legitimate interpretation of the role, but when we get to the end Morfontaine proves to be more of an avenger than a fool. Pelly’s interpretation seems uncalled for.
Some of the issues with all set descriptions are subject to the qualifier of “what we are allowed to see” by the Met’s director for cinema Gary Halvorson. The experience at Lincoln Center may well be different.
The opening scene is set in the courtyard of an inn where the 15-year old Manon arrives on her way to a convent. The courtyard looks like the interior of a fortress in the desert where the French Foreign Legion used to serve (I have never seen one but that is how I imagine it.) The austere walls have shutters that open and we see people peer out at the arrivals.
Pelly and Thomas make the posh Cours-la-Reine of Act III resemble a bunch of wheelchair ramps. This is where Manon and de Brétigny are living the high life. The gambling room of the Hôtel de Transylvanie in Act IV Looks like a storage room after some incompetent painter sloshed a lot of green paint on the walls. Are we eschewing the opulent or is this supposed to be opulent?
I take issue with the sets and some interpretations of the opera but aside from that, this was an enjoyable afternoon at the opera.
Manon by Jules Massenet was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on April 7 2012 at Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, (416) 752-4494 www.cineplex.com/events and other theatres.