Puccini’s Manon Lescaut has to be one of the least sympathetic leading ladies in opera: insufficiently malevolent for a villain, too shallow and materialistic to be a heroine (her escape from her rich “patron” is foiled because she refuses to leave without her jewels, jewels she is inexplicably slow at gathering up), and too passive to be an interesting mix of the two. That doesn’t mean her story isn’t worth following, though. She’s a perfect storm of many of the nineteenth century’s least appealing ideas about women and Puccini’s score is loaded with enough high octane drama to keep your attention. With the right production and cast, it can work! Unfortunately the Met’s tepid, confusing new production doesn’t pull it off.
Puccini, Manon Lescaut. Met Opera, 2/12/16. New production premiere directed by Richard Eyre with sets by Rob Howell, costumes by Fotini Dimou, lights by Peter Mumford, and choreography by Sara Erde. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Kristine Opolais (Manon Lescaut), Roberto Alagna (Chevalier Des Grieux), Zach Borichevsky (Edmondo), Massimo Cavalletti (Lescaut), Brindley Sherratt (Geronte)
Note: I will add some more photos once I get home. I wanted to post this as quickly as I could.
Richard Eyre’s production is set, as an intertitle informs us at the start, in France in 1941. Like his Jean Renoir-themed Figaro of last season, Eyre seems to have chosen his setting based on the DVD he watched the previous night, in this case perhaps the flashback section of Casablanca. (In Act 1, Manon’s hair is pure Ingrid Bergman.) But the specificity of his setting causes a lot of problems. For one thing, the first act consists of extended exalting at the beauty of springtime/Manon/etc. and such rejoicing is at odds with establishing the setting of occupied France in 1941 (at one point the chorus mocks some soldiers, for which they strangely suffer no consequences). Rob Howell’s set provides some looming, curved white walls which mostly stay out of the way.
In the original eighteenth-century setting, Manon’s Act 2 life of luxury is pre-French Revolution excess, as indicated in the score by the elaborate pastiche of eighteenth-century music. This could be equally loaded in Eyre’s setting–Manon’s elderly lover Geronte is a Nazi collaborator, I think–but the production doesn’t really make a point of this. Instead, Eyre’s focus seems to be on making Act 2 extra sexy, turning Manon’s dancing lesson into a kind of exhibitionism with a suave dude and following that up with a staging of the Des Grieux love duet that is more handsy than most of what goes on at the Met. Unfortunately, the performers didn’t seem to have much chemistry–more on that in a minute–and it all looked really awkward.
|Act 3. As usual, I can only find photos with close-ups.|
Back to the setting: the last two acts of the opera deal with Manon’s arrest on charges of immorality and her exile from France to the infamous “deserts outside New Orleans.” The trouble is that if one was in France in 1941 exile would a) not actually be a thing that happened unless we’re talking something much darker than what we get here b) if it were a thing to get out of Europe, a lot of France would be asking what immoral acts must I commit in front of whom because please sign me up. In Eyre’s production, Manon and Des Grieux end Act 3 on a boat like the libretto specifies, but it is unclear where the boat goes because in the final act they are not in the desert of Louisiana but back in a bombed-out version of the previous acts’ sets. Perhaps I shouldn’t be taking this so literally, but this production does not otherwise seem to be concerned with anything other than literal representation. Why box yourself into such a problematic setting when you could just as well have chosen a more plausible or vague one?
(I wonder if the de-politicization is because Eyre’s production was first mounted in Baden Baden, in Germany. Setting an opera during the occupation of France at a German opera house is a bold move but Eyre has done his best to make this as un-bold as possible.)
Musically speaking, this was not the Manon Lescaut we were looking for, either. Conductor Fabio Luisi is always a class act, and I liked the way he pinpointed the recurring themes and found the delicacy in the beginning of Act 2 and Act 3. I wish that this had been balanced with more rhythmic snap and intensity, but I think he was trying to be as gentle as possible for his somewhat unsure cast.
About that. The highlight of this production was to be Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux, but he cancelled and instead we got Roberto Alagna. I was convinced this was going to be an OK thing. Des Grieux is a character who launches headlong into effusive high register stuff. He tends to takes action first and realizes he made a stupid decision around an act later. Alagna is an instinctive, even reckless performer while Kaufmann can never quite hide that he thinks about everything very carefully. But last night Alagna’s habitual hammy charm seemed to have deserted him and his performance was unusually tentative. After a shaky Act 1 (in which he struggled through his first big solo in particular) things improved, and his burnished, Italianate tone was in evidence. Many of the higher phrases, though, were perilously out of tune. He’s never sung this role before, so I suppose I should be charitable, but the inexperience was all too obvious. Hopefully he will gain confidence and character over the course of the run; I still think he has this role in him.
He also had minimal chemistry with Kristine Opolais’s Manon. Vocally, she was somewhat undersized and rarely delivered a smooth, cleanly shaped musical line. Her tone was steely rather than full and turned thinner when she tried to float, as in “In quelle trine morbide.” She usually compensates for her vocal limitations with sheer force of will and intensity (such as her Rusalka, which was a really remarkable performance), but here she gave us a rather calculating, uninvolved portrayal that embraced Manon’s apparent soulessness. She finally turned on the pathos in Act 4, in Manon’s only extended solo. But there, despite her physically intense and even affecting acting–crouching, collapsing–she was undercut by her lack of any real chest voice. (Anyone else who saw the 2008 Met run of this opera is probably flashing back to Karita Mattila’s funky but undeniably enthusiastic deployment of chest voice in this scene.)
In many ways Manon is a character without any sense of self, constructed solely by the men around her. (Alessandra Campana’s recent book has an interesting chapter on this subject.) She’s passive and always wants to be told that she’s beautiful (unlike, say, Carmen, who knows how attractive she is and enjoys it). But instead of deconstructing this characterization or, more simply, giving her some signs of inner life, Eyre and Opolais seem more interested in enjoying her suffering as a glamorous spectacle. We see this in Manon’s Act 2 display (why is she doing a tango, by the way?) as well as in the Parade o’ Prostitutes in Act 3, in which a crowd jeers at a succession of women, including Manon, who have been condemned for sins of the flesh. This latter scene is a chance to admire more female bodies–those of minimally dressed supernumeraries, per usual–each of whom gets a moment to frantically writhe and claw at their captors. And the Met audience seemed to join the crowd onstage in laughing, the woman sitting next to me poking her husband and pointing at the stage. The women are presented as a guilty, anonymous titillation when they should be a symptom.
Elsewhere in the cast, Massimo Cavalletti was a woolly and barking Lescaut and Brindley Sherratt an excellently characterized, authoritative Geronte. As Edmondo, Zach Borichevsky looked very tall and sounded like a generic light tenor.
I’ve always found this opera weirdly, darkly fascinating. I don’t think, however, that this production makes a very good case for it. If you’re going to go, wait a bit to see if Alagna and maybe even Opolais find their footing.
If you’re interested in this opera, I recommend checking out Opera Quarterly’s 2008 special issue of articles about it (Oxford Journals paywall).
Photo copyright Ken Howard
Video: Manon’s Act 4 “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”