Grigolo and Damrau star in Manon

Massenet’s Manon returns to the Metropolitan Opera

My problem with Massenet and his Manon is that he, and therefore it, seems to teeter on the fine line between the serious and the silly. I have the same problem with Carmen. The creative team of the Met’s current production of Manon has decided not to brush aside or mute the lighter sides of the opera, but for me their decision sometimes weakens the impact of the more serious sides.

Director Laurent Pelly (who also designed the costumes) and Chantal Thomas (sets) are internationally famous for their productions of French comic operas, notably here La fille du régiment and several of Offenbach’s gems in Paris and elsewhere. View enough of these and Pelly’s signature directorial style jumps out at you: exaggerated poses from the silent film era, silly walks that verge on Pythonesque, a chorus that often turns, leans, and moves robotically to the music, lots of busy movement up and down stairs or ramps, and so on. Thomas’s sets tend to be properly suggestive of the location of a scene, but are never brick by brick literal and often come with improbable extras.

Guillot de Morfontaine steps out

Guillot de Morfontaine steps out

Take Guillot de Morfontaine, for instance: he’s the old roué who dallies with the charming young beauties Pousette, Javotte, and Rosette at the opera’s beginning. He has a silly walk, and as for the girls, save that Massenet wrote the music, they could be Carmen’s girlfriends Mercédès and Frasquita or the three cousins in Perichole. Very amusing, actually. Yet it’s Guillot’s serious charge of cheating and the summoning of the gendarmes that ultimately leads to Manon’s arrest, her degradation at the feet of those who used her, and her death. Not very amusing at all.

Diana Damrau in the Cours de Reine scene

Diana Damrau in the Cours de Reine scene

The cast members for this season’s Manon apparently take Pelly’s directions seriously and execute them with panache. At the center of the drama are Diana Damrau as Manon and Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux. Whereas Damrau is sometimes asked to behave in a manner that borders on caricature, particularly as ‘Manon the innocent young thing at the inn in Amiens’ or ‘Manon the courtesan kept by the wealthy de Brétigny,’ at other times she plays the natural woman in love. Damrau rose to the pitch of passion when necessary, overcoming the effects of a cold on the evening reviewed here.

Grigolo again delivers a passionate account of a man hopelessly smitten by a woman. His character seems relatively untouched by Pelly’s predilections. Grigolo’s acting is sincere and consistent with the situations Des Grieux finds himself in and though stylistically Grigolo is far from your classic French tenor, I again find myself responding to his ardor and desperation. His heartfelt cry at Manon’s death sent a shudder through the audience.

The secondary characters were all finely etched. Russell Braun is Lescaut, Manon’s cousin, who here is a bit more refined than the rascal he is in the novel. Dwayne Croft is a cool and shifty de Brétigny, the one who engineers Manon’s descent into the demi monde. Nicolas Testé is a stern Count Des Grieux, Christophe Mortagne’s Guillot is crisp and exasperated in his manner and Pousette (Mireille Asselin), Javotte (Cecelia Hall), and Rosette (Maya Lahyani) are lovely to look at and to hear.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with the same attention to the inner voices of the score we expect from him, though I wanted more of a caress from the themes associated with the tender love between Manon and Des Grieux.

I marveled at Chantal Thomas’s evocative clouds as the backdrops for many of the scenes in this production, but was generally disappointed with the otherwise bland sets. At least with La fille du régiment there was more complexity, texture and color.

Photos: Ken Howard.

Review performance date: March 12, 2015.

Be advised: the performance’s running time is a tad over 4 hours, including two intermissions.

I told you spring was coming! Make it special. JRS