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Anna Netrebko as Manon Lescaut [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
26 Apr 2012

Manon, Metropolitan Opera

Massenet’s Manon succeeds in the theater when the soprano has a real sense of the role and how she wants to present it.

Jules Massenet: Manon

Manon Lescaut: Anna Netrebko; Des Grieux: Piotr Beczala; Lescaut: Michael Todd Simpson; Pousette: Anne-Carolyn Bird; Javotte: Jennifer Black; Rosette: Ginger Costa-Jackson; Guillot de Morfontaine: Christophe Mortagne; De Brétigny: Bradley Garvin; Count des Grieux: David Pittsinger. Chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Fabio Luisi. Performance of April 17.

Above: Anna Netrebko as Manon Lescaut

Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


There are other juicy roles in the opera, notably that of her Chevalier des Grieux, but a Manon with a vapid Manon never works (no pun on working girl intended). At the Met, Manon has been a major vehicle for singing actresses with small voices but great cachet: Bori, Sayão, Albanese, de los Angeles, and across the Plaza it was a triumph for the vocal acting of Beverly Sills, my first Manon. More recently I have heard Renée Fleming’s listless interpretation at the Met and Natalie Dessay’s rather more on-target version (opposite Jonas Kaufman) in Chicago.

Anna Netrebko has appeared in two DVDs of the opera in rather different styles as she adjusted to different directors’ visions. Now she has come to the Met in a production by Laurent Pelly that allows her to be Manon as she understands this very young, very material girl. A fine actress as well as a talented and hardworking singer with a lovely if not always ideally exploited voice, she makes a thrilling, fully realized sensation in the part.

Manon_Met_2012_01.gifAnna Netrebko as Manon Lescaut

Netrebko brings rather more voice to Manon than is usually the case. She restrains her full-throated sound in the opening scenes, when Manon is fifteen and—at least in Act I—a virgin, albeit une jeune fille en fleur. She then exploits the voluptuous grandeur of her sound to the full to play the haughty beauty of the Cour-la-Reine and the passionate seductress of St. Sulpice. She reaches an ecstatic pinnacle in the Hotel de Transylvania scene, and her glow of sensual delight in the thrill of life and high society and being an object desired by Des Grieux and every other man in the room (and envied by all the women whom she used to envy) flushed body and voice with narcissistic delight. The pitiful comedown (enhanced by Chantal Thomas’s despairing, empty landscape—the best setting of the production) was perhaps not so sickly, so evanescent as the usual Manon plays it. Netrebko still had plenty of lung power to display, expressive more of agony than resigned regret. This makes me eager to hear her take on Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which requires full-blooded sensuality in the voice from start to finish and hasn’t had it since Freni and Scotto stopped singing the part.

In any case, I can guarantee that those who go to the opera for Netrebko in Manon will not find a half-understood, half-realized or lackluster portrayal. She is bursting with life even in her saddest moments, which makes the fluster she creates among the men around her perfectly comprehensible—even in the Pelly production that (in keeping with our pornographic age) insists on making explicit, shoving our nose into, what Massenet is content to imply: the rape fantasies not merely imagined but enacted by just about every male on stage, of Manon and of every girl in the corps de ballet. (I think Massenet had it right, and Pelly’s direction undercuts the effect of Manon’s fate.)

MANON-Beczala-Netrebko2118a.gifPiotr Beczala as des Grieux and Anna Netrebko as Manon Lescaut

Piotr Beczala plays Des Grieux. He is goodlooking, tender, frenzied by turns, a fine actor and a sympathetic figure. His voice always gives pleasure, interpreting and expressing; if it sometimes fades to indistinction in the distant reaches of the house. Michael Todd Simpson replaced Paulo Szot as Manon’s corrupt cousin at the last minute, presumably with little preparation—but there was nothing in his professional, casually sensuous performance to indicate that anything (in life or this story) was new to him; he was entirely at ease, his voice agreeable and suave, his acting witty and to the point. I am told he is an admired Don Giovanni and I am eager to hear him take it on. Christophe Mortagne, light of step and livid with, alas, not quite impotent indignation, was quite fine as the roué Guillot. The trio of cocottes was played by Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jennifer Black and Ginger Costa-Jackson, top-notch casting for these small but far from insignificant character roles. They set Manon off, inspiring her to her life of ill-fame, but since they have no hearts, they have survived the catastrophe to which she succumbs.

The production is set in fin-de-siècle Paris, an era in which girls of ill fame (and accusation) were not sent to exile in Louisiana. I am not sure what Mr. Pelly thinks he has gained by abandoning the proper era except anything-as-long-as-it-hasn’t-been-done is the current style. Nor is there any point at all in having Des Grieux sleep in a bed in the nave of St. Sulpice except (as we guessed from the rise of the curtain on the scene) it will enable the act to end not with Manon and her priest taking hands and running off but with them wallowing on the blankets. Is this realistic? Do you, if you seduce someone, not seek privacy to consummate the event? Again: It is merely Pelly slavishly following current fashion, which is as evanescent as adolescent passion. I can’t wait to be free of it and of the artists who succumb to it.

MANON-Szot2622a.gifAnne-Carolyn Bird as Poussette, Paulo Szot as Lescaut, Ginger Costa-Jackson as Rosette, and Jennifer Black as Javotte

Fabio Luisi led the Met orchestra in a suave, elegant account of this long, tuneful score and made the dramatic points: Real emotions lurked under the frivolous surface.

Someone should really tell the Met Titlestm that “abbé” does not mean abbot or imply the existence of an abbey; it is simply a polite way to address a priest in French.

John Yohalem

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