The Metropolitan Opera transmitted its penultimate HD telecast of this season – Massenet’s Manon – on Saturday April 7, 2012. Manon is the most French opera I can think of. It’s almost like an opera Debussy would have written had he been able or inclined to write boffo arias and duets. This new production was staged by Laurent Pully who also designed the costumes. This may explain why the sets looked like they had been purchased on-sale at Walmart. Designed by Chantal Thomas, they resembled the pop-up scenes in a children’s book or were dingy (the gambling scene) or like a skate boarders park (the promenade scene). I suspect Pully spent his budget on the costumes and had to make do as best he could with the rest of the production. There was an interesting item in the Cours-la Reine set. It appeared to be a giant basketball – see below. I think it was supposed to be a hot air balloon, but it looked like it belonged in the NBA.
Pully chose to set the opera in the late 19th century; the sets were not specific for any period. Why directors keep changing operas’ time settings is mysterious. Nothing was gained by moving the opera up 150 years except for arcane references to the king when the last king of France had been gone for half a century.
The opera was mounted as a vehicle for the Met’s reigning goddess, Anna Netrebko. And she didn’t disappoint. Her figure may be more matronly than when she first appeared in New York, but she’s still gorgeous. More important, her voice is rich and beautiful and her acting beyond criticism; she has Manon down to the last personality trait. Her singing may lack some of the agility required for Manon and one high note was off pitch, but the whole package was grand. She managed the daunting task of portraying a character 25 years younger than she in the face of Gary Halvorson’s close-ups while still being convincing – a tour de force. Disbelief was shed like October’s leaves.
Manon is a selfish teenager whose only redeeming features are beauty and youth. OK, I guess that’s enough. Her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, is a very decent young man who’s totally lost every shred of restraint over Manon. He’s completely bonkers. He’ll do anything for Manon, no matter how stupid. Woody Allen said the brain was his second favorite organ. Des Grieux has no second favorite organ. But he does have as much great music to sing as Manon. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala has been singing at the Met for five years. He has gradually established himself as perhaps the best pure lyric tenor now active. Though 44 years old he looks a dozen years younger. His voice is rich, focused, and reaches high notes with ease; they have ping and his piano singing is lovely. His sound is not large, but it’s big enough for the roles he sings and he never forces. This is a beautiful voice that should last given how well it’s used. His performance today had everything one could want from Des Grieux. “Le Rêve” was sung with sweet pianissimi and “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” with passion and ringing high notes. His acting, though not as nuanced as Netrebko’s was convincing. Beczala’s also slim and handsome. The opera world is his.
Netrebko and Beczala when singing together were an audio-visual treat. The St Sulpice had all the raw sex that Massenet wrote into the score. What a cot was doing in a church is a nit to pick, but of course the duo ended up in it. Des Grieux’s short flirtation with celibacy couldn’t last because he had lost his mind in the first act. Massenet knew what sold the tickets. It still does.
The rest of the cast was first rate. Paulo Szot was handsome as Lescaut, Manon’s high living cousin, and he sang with a smooth lyric baritone. French tenor Christophe Mortagne was campy as the old roue Guillot. I don’t think he understands more than five words of English, but that didn’t stop him from being interviewed by Deborah Voigt during an intermission. It was hard to tell who was more confused, Voigt or Mortagne. The aforementioned David Pittsinger was dignified and convincing as the elder des Grieux. He’s a ringer for Christopher Plummer 40 years ago. Bradley Garvin wearing a fright wig was solid as Brétigny.
The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi conducted with vigor and polish. Manon can drag if the conductor doesn’t keep the pace brisk. Maestro Luisi is in the midst of a conducting marathon. He’s on the podium 20 times this month. We were told in a text screen that this was a Met record. The Met orchestra as is now the norm played with brilliance except for one blown trumpet entrance. The intermission host was supposed to be Natalie Dessay. No reason was given for her absence.
In summary, if you have Netrebko and Beczala available then put on Manon. If you don’t have their like, leave the score in the library.
Metropolitan Opera House
April 7, 2012 Matinee HD Transmission/Simulcast
Jules Massenet-Henri Meilhac/Philippe Gille
Des Grieux…………..Piotr Beczala
Count des Grieux……..David Pittsinger
Set Designer…………Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer……..Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer…….Joël Adam
Associate Director……Christian Räth
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson