Manon at the Met marche sur quelques chemins

The Met’s new Anna Netrebko vehicle production of Manon stands out in the desert of the Met as a rare beacon of competence. Laurent Pelly’s production isn’t great–the tone is uneven and it generally fails to cohere–but most of it is smoothly executed and there’s some interesting stuff in there. Above all, it has Anna Netrebko as Manon, and her epic soprano that overwhelms everything around her.

Massenet, Manon. Metropolitan Opera, 3/31/12. New production by Laurent Pelly with sets by Chantal Thomas and costumes by Pelly, lights by Joël Adam. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Anna Netrebko (Manon), Piotr Beczala (Des Grieux), Paulo Szot (Lescaut), David Pittsinger (Count des Grieux), Christophe Mortagne (Guillot).

First, if you can take a second and vote for me in the second round of the Arts Blogger Challenge, I would appreciate it. If I were to win I would be able to bring you more writing funded by my oodles of prize money.

Pelly sets the opera in the Belle Époque, around the time of its composition. The central idea is compelling: male voyeurism, and Manon alternately controlling and being controlled by the male society she fascinates. Netrebko’s Manon might start off young, but she’s both hot to trot and fully self-conscious from the beginning. On every step of her journey from country girl to living-in-sin Bohemian to kept woman, she knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it–it’s just the society that enjoys her so much has to condemn her in the end to satisfy their nineteenth-century morality. For Netrebko, this is a great interpretation, fitting her modern, forthright sexuality as well as her lustrous, big voice. Playing Manon as a wispy innocent would be both dramatically and vocally futile for her.

The production’s execution of this concept, though, leaves something to be desired. Chantal Thomas’s plain, cardboard-y sets, with some off-kilter angles and exaggerated perspective, look unfinished and incongruously small in the vast space of the Met’s stage. (This production was first seen in the much smaller Royal Opera House in London.) There’s an obsession with multiple levels and ramps, and everything is white and looks kind of the same until we reach the casino. The costumes are more elaborate though the color palette is limited.

Pelly doesn’t seem to have entirely decided about where he wants to take the piece, mixing cute jokes with some pretty heavy duty stuff and thus undermining both. While his attention to personal interaction is admirable, the characterization is not entirely consistent, and realism and surrealism mix uneasily. Tiny houses and freeze frames in the chorus recall Pelly’s cutesy Fille du régiment, but it’s hard to think that the crowds of men spying on Manon at every turn are a joke.

In the Saint-Sulpice scene, Des Grieux’s bed appears to be located in the nave of the church, which makes sense if you think about it as abstract, but the sets so far had been more literal about their sense of place. And when Manon rips off his cassock, it can’t help but be over-the-top silly. Her action–seducing a priest-in-training after his sermon–is itself ridiculously melodramatic, but the ironic tone sits awkwardly with the sweet staging of their romance in the first half of the opera.

When Pelly really goes for the abuse heaped on fallen women, I’m still not sure if I can take him seriously. A ballet with intently-watching Jockey Club men seems like a knock-off of the Giselle parody in David McVicar’s Faust (actually, in some ways this whole production is a bargain basement version of that one). There’s an air of half-assedness around it. It’s a shame, because it could have worked had Pelly taken a few more chances.

But even if it rarely lifts off, there’s a lot to offer here, first and foremost Netrebko. Most people would say she’s well past the Massenet-Manon fach and should be singing Puccini’s more full-throated Manon instead, but she brings a lot to Massenet as well. Namely, she fills (and occasionally crashes through) the phrases with such a gorgeous, thick, sexy sound that they seem to glow, at least some of the time. She’s most at home in the legato of the entrance aria and the table farewell, while the ornate faux-eighteenth century writing and Ds in the Cours la Reine scene aren’t easy for her (the first D worked pretty well but the second not as much). Overall it’s a beautifully full-blooded performance, with vitality and passion to spare.

Piotr Beczala tends to indicate more than inhabit his roles, but his Des Grieux was the most convincing acting I’ve seen from him, with straightforward naturalism that generally eludes him. Unfortunately all was not well vocally for his Italianate lyric tenor. He’s a very musical singer and some phrases were gorgeous, but he struggled with intonation the entire evening, often singing slightly sharp. Louder phrases, including much of “Ah! fuyez..” were pushed and lacked resonance.

The supporting roles were fine, with Paulo Szot making the most of his likeability as Lescaut. His voice is on the small side but he sounds good enough in this role. Christophe Mortagne was funny as Guillot, though I’m not sure if funny was quite what was required all the time. David Pittsinger is always a welcome presence at the Met and was an excellent Count (his entrance in the Hôtel de Transylvanie scene makes you remember how very much like Traviata large portions of this opera are).

Fabio Luisi’s conducting was intelligent and well-coordinated and on the more deliberate side of things. I wish it had been flashier. Actually, that’s what I would have liked of the whole production.

If you haven’t read La Cieca’s piece on Netrebko’s characterization of Manon, I recommend you do. I have one thing I’d add, though. While there is no single Manon, we can say with some confidence what the 19th-century Manon would have been, and we can say what audiences today expect as well. Based on the reaction, the latter is something much daintier than Netrebko. I think that for rhetorical purposes La Cieca understates the difficulty of contravening this tradition. The score is all we have, but people are attached to their usual ways of thinking about a piece, and you need to be stronger and more consistent than Pelly is here to convince them otherwise.

Still, the production is worth seeing, if somewhat disappointing.

Manon plays through April and she will suffer her inevitable HD broadcast on April 7.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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