Good Orchestral Playing in a Colourless Production of Manon

United StatesUnited States  Massenet , Manon: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York/Fabio Luisi (conductor), 7.4.2012 (CC)

Manon:  Anna Netrebko
Chevalier Des Grieux: Piotr Beczala
Lescaut: Paolo Szot
Count Des Grieux: David Pittsinger
Guillot de Montfontaine:  Christophe Montagne
De Brétigny: Bradley Garvin

Producer/Costume Design: Laurent Pelly

Set Designer: Chantal Thomas

Lighting Designer: Joël Adam

The single sheet given out as a programme at Barbican Cinema One, with its black-and-white (mainly black) photocopied image of Netrebko as Manon, seemed, in retrospect, strangely prophetic of Laurent Pelly’s production of Massenet’s great opera. This is the production that was given at Covent Garden, and has also been seen in Milan and Toulouse. With the exception of Netrebko’s several costumes (we see them lined up in one of the interval ‘extras’), the predominant impression is of greys and darkness. There is relocation here, also, from the opera’s stated c1720 – Regency France, following the death of Louis XIV, to the late nineteenth century (around the 1880s). The set of the opening is of a near-Communist relentlessness of grey – a blank, depressing background on which to paint an opera in which, in this reading, men are misogynists who use the women around them. Only the male lead, the Chevalier des Grieux, is the exception. The set consists of deliberately out-of-perspective elements, although whether these are included to induce a sense of unreality, fairytale (if it is, it inspired by the brothers Grimm), or whatever I know not. There is a ferris wheel in distance for the Cours de la Reine scene– it seemed as if the London’s Millennium Wheel had been temporarily hijkacked and relocated, for no real effect. Only the scene in Saint Sulpice and the tragedy of the final act seemed to work from a production perspective, but they had nothing to contrast against and so lost impact. It is interesting how Pelly’s Fille du régiment (Donizetti, with Dessay) was so successful, yet this left so much to be desired …

A facet of the camera work that has bothered me in the past (in Cenerentola in particular, if memory serves) is a habit of using a ‘floorcam’. Looking at characters as if one were lying on one’s back on the stage itself is rarely flattering to the soloist and simply bizarre for the cinema audience.

Fabio Luisi, the Met’s Principal Conductor since last September, seems ideally suited to this piece. The opening positively fizzed, yet he gave the music space when needed and seemed to make the ballet dancers hop along nicely. The orchestra clearly loves him, for there seemed not a note played in boredom throughout, and he captured the pathos of the final act superbly.

Anna Netrebko has appeared a total of some seven times in the Met in HD. She is magical – her “Je suis encor tout étourdie” (Act 1) had a visceral freshness about it, yet there is also a depth and richness to her voice that I don’t seem to remember. As transfixing to watch as she was to listen too, it is good to note that she has the entire range this part demands, from the cool, crystal top to the focused, beautifully full lower range. She captured, too, the pathos of the second act “Adieu, notre petit table”, another of those mesmeric moments when Netrebko drew the audience into Massenet’s magic.  She reclaimed her lover from the jaws of Christianity in Saint Sulpice in no uncertain terms – this Manon is no shrinking violet (and never was, despite the fact that as the opera opens she is allegedly heading towards a nunnery). Technically, it must be admitted, all was not perfect; notes were not always ideally delineated at speed, for example. Yet there are few in front of the public today who can hold the stage in such a way, and dwarf any there with her.

Pity, then, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala singing Manon’s lover, the Chevalier des Grieux who was as ardent as one could wish, yet never quite in the same tier. The good news is that in duet they sparked off each other perfectly (“Nous vivrons à Paris, tous les deux”). His “En fermant les yeux” was commendable – yet he lacks the ability to truly scoop up an audience’s emotions and command them the way Netrebko can. Thankfully, when it came to the tragic final act (the road to Le Havre, and here the dour sets at last seemed fitting, projecting the impression of a massive desolate space), both principal singers gave their best. Netrebko was positively radiant in her death.

Christophe Montagne was a superb, hilarious Guillot, all the more captivating for his vocal excellence, too. Paolo Szot joined the Met in 2010 in Shostakovich’s The Nose. Here he exhibited fine stage presence; I liked David Pittsinger’s convincing, eloquent Des Grieux père, although his voice might have too little fullness for some.

A mixed evening, then. Netrebko triumphs, if with a handful of caveats. I wish the same could be said of the production

Colin Clarke