Met has a hot Manon Lescaut

The Met’s new Manon Lescaut is hot!!!

Most of the time.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which premiered earlier this February, is conceived by Sir Richard Eyre as a tale of frustrated love in the dark days following the fall of France in the Second World War.

Edgy German soldiers are a constant presence; the French citizens, students, ladies and gentlemen try as best they can to go about their business. Particularly evocative of the period is the grand railroad station of Amiens (Act I) at which stops the train carrying the beautiful Manon Lescaut, still young and a bit uncertain, but sexy and alluring nonetheless.

The sets too evoke the period in other ways. The station’s interior wall, proscenium-high, forms the backdrop to a lower street level. Its light grey shade gives the scene the tint of a black and white war film, Casablanca comes to mind for reasons set forth below, its effect enhanced by period costumes of Fotini Dimou and lighting by Peter Mumford. A long staircase leads down from the walkways above the tracks, which are hidden from our view; at stage level bubbles the local color: a small outdoor café to the left, crowded with students and other sorts milling about, and a tall swanky hotel to the right. It’s a cool effect. More on the sets later.

 Des Grieux meets the maybe not so innocent Manon

Des Grieux meets the maybe not so innocent Manon

Kristine Opolais, as Manon, does not disappoint in any relevant category: she is attractive, supple in movement, a perceptive, extraverted actor and, important in opera, a fine singer. Her character runs the gamut from a to some degree shy and uncertain young lady to a woman in full control of her ‘powers’ as a beauty queen (though not in the literal sense of a Miss Universe, thank goodness). Perhaps she is a film star or a model: Sir Richard’s production has what appears to be a photo shoot arranged by Geronte in Act II. But from this glitzy peak it’s all downhill. Opolais gives an exquisite rendition of Manon’s final scene. Brava!!

  Manon alone, lost and abandoned in the wasteland

Manon alone, lost and abandoned in the wasteland

Newsworthy for this new production is that tenor Roberto Alagna saved the day, filling the vacancy caused by Jonas Kaufmann’s very last minute cancelation. Alagna re-studied the part of Des Grieux (he had more or less learned it in 2006, but the production (in Italy) was withdrawn); in a remarkably brief period of time, two weeks and change, he brought it triumphantly to the Met’s stage, the first in his long career. Alagna remains in excellent shape both vocally and physically, in fact I’d venture to say his Des Grieux recalled his best artistry from years ago. He sings well, bright, youthful, expressive, believable, and, as is always his gold standard, he acts the part of a young Des Grieux sincerely.

  Des Grieux and Manon rendezvous in her bedroom

Des Grieux and Manon rendezvous in her bedroom

As a heads up: the Le Havre scene (Act III, Scene I here) is particularly treacherous and taxing for the tenor: the singing must be loud, the vocal line is high, and the dramatic situation is desperate. Keep your fingers crossed.

Also in the cast are Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut, Zach Borichevsky as Edmondo, a student in Act I (I’ll bet he’s also a member of the crowd in Act III, Scene I) and Brindley Sherratt as Geronte de Ravoir, Manon’s sugar daddy in Act II. Sherratt is chilling, actually: Geronte seems to be to some extent in bed with the Nazis. One wonders if this is intentionally so.

Fabio Luisi continues to impress as a conductor of broad style and intricate detail.

Back to Rob Howell’s sets. Unlike Sir Richard’s Carmen and Le Nozze di Figaro, also designed by Howell, the larger structures in Manon Lescaut don’t morph into new settings so easily or for the final scene so quickly. Sometimes, Act I particularly, the structure works well both scenically and atmospherically, but Manon’s boudoir, bed and dressing table (Act II), are enclosed in the same wall, albeit in a different orientation. It’s a darker color scheme; golden stairs descend from a different doorway high above. She resides at stage-level. It looks cold: can this really be where Manon sleeps and makes love? Even if it is not love being made?

And at Le Havre, from which Manon and the other fallen women are to be deported, the designers could have evoked a heavy Channel fog blowing past the visible bow of the freighter, the mid-ship and stern not seen, enshrouded in the mist. This truly would look and feel like the end of Casablanca, which, like Manon Lescaut, is full of tense of goings, comings, and narrow escapes…but the wall is still there, clearly visible, completely destroying the illusion.

Finally, the projection on the darkened screen before the curtain rises for Act III, Scene II, says ‘Wasteland,’ fair enough, but it’s the wall again. Okay, it’s severely damaged, enclosing a partly destroyed grand structure, ceiling collapsed, windows with shell holes, debris everywhere, probably from bombardment…is it a cathedral? Is it a university lecture hall or a library building? Really doesn't matter. Much of Europe was a wasteland by the end of the war, but I'll bet you're thinking, as I say this, "hey wait, aren't they transported to Louisiana?" Yes, so the libretto and source novel say. But both the structure and its condition beg the questions: to where were they, Manon and Des Grieux, transported to by freighter (i.e., over deep water) and how would they end up in a crumbling formerly elegant structure like this in what must be a war zone? Am I missing something about Louisiana?

Just quibbling. The general mood is right, even if the details compromise the totality of the effect. On the musical side the Met's new Manon Lescaut is a winner, hands down.

And for the record, this is NOT the same production as that from Covent Garden in June of 2014, starring Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann, captured on SONY Classical DVD.

Review performance date at the Met: February 18, 2016.

Photos: Ken Howard

Check out the page Projects here on OperaMetro: though Massenet and Puccini begin their operas with the same scene, and end in more or less the same place, they (and their librettists) tackle different parts of the source novel. Find out the real story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut!!

Manon Lescaut is performed at the Met in three acts (Act I, Act II, then Acts III & IV in a single sitting). The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a quarter hours, including two intermissions.

Enjoy! February is more than half over…this past Saturday one could smell spring in the air! And that's not just wishful thinking!!

JRS