Remarking about how his impending Manon Lescaut would compare to his contemporary Jules Massenet’s Manon, a successful setting of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel of the same name, Giacomo Puccini said, “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.” Saturday night’s thrilling performance of Massenet’s most popular opera, Manon, may have proved the great composer’s idea about Massenet’s capabilities wrong.
The opera’s score, a personal favorite, features gorgeous music for the orchestra and singers and has remained a staple of the operatic canon since its premiere in 1884. In a piquant revival of the Met production that first starred Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala in 2012, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo illuminated Laurent Pelly’s drab staging with vocal intensity and dramatic fervor. It’s not like they were given much to work with, though. The production is full of useless stage business with running, jumping, and singin’-in-the-rain hand-holding. Chantal Thomas’ brutally unattractive and cheap-looking sets make some scenes of the opera look like the wheelchair entrances to any municipal building, while others do nothing to hint at any aspect of the many actual locations called for in the libretto. Joël Adam’s lights bring out the worst in the shirt-cardboard walls and fail to evoke the environment that undergoes such a dramatic arc over the course of the performance. Fortunately, Laurent Pelly makes up for some of the artistic misgivings with gorgeous gowns for Manon and serviceable suits and dresses for the rest. Lionel Hoche’s choreography is really lovely, though there’s not much space to execute it in.
The most important part of this production, however, is that it lets Diana Damrau play. The German-born diva is a giggly, sparkly, firecracker onstage and throws herself into the role with all of its silly choreography. Her Manon is deeply introspective and insecure with every word given weight, meaning, and motivation. For a character that becomes so easy to roll our eyes at by the end, Manon is given layer upon layer of complexity by Ms. Damrau. Alluring(and stunningly beautiful as a brunette), but attention-starved, jovial, but shallow, Damrau’s Manon is much more emotionally substantial even than Netrebko’s, who banked on vocal and physical glamour in 2012. It was a compelling dramatic arc and Damrau succeeded in taking the audience on the journey with her. Fortunately, the vocal goods didn’t lack, either. Despite suffering from a cold through the entire run, Damrau sunk her silvery soprano voice completely into the demanding role. Her stratospheric high notes shimmered and her consistent dips into chest voice were thrilling. Every one of Manon’s strophic arias was deeply felt and expressed in perfect French, including a positively captivating “Je Suis Encor Tout Etourdie”. In Damrau, we have more than a coloratura canary. Let’s put her to even better use. ( I suggest Tatyana in Eugene Onegin.)
As her paramour, Vittorio Grigolo brought his big, sweet, distinctive voice to the role of the Chevalier des Grieux. The two bring out the best in each other and, despite Damrau’s being 43 and Grigolo’s being 38, are completely believable as teenagers. The Italian tenor sings, even French music, in a very Italianate style with many of his arias arriving at a huge climax, but he shapes the phrases in a sensitive way and dispatched his arias, in particular “Ah! Fuyez Douce Image” with aplomb.
Russel Braun brought a pleasant, dry voice to the part of Manon’s cousin Lescaut. He delivered a droll charm in his third act “Rosalinde” arioso and played well with Damrau onstage. Dwayne Croft was a nicely voiced De Bretigny, and Nicholas Testé brought a big, beautiful timbre to the small but crucial role of Des Grieux Père. The trio of Mireille Asselin, Cecelia Hall, and Maya Lahyani brought varied voices and great comic timing to Pousette, Javotte, and Rosette, members of the entourage lead by the fantastic singing-actor Christophe Mortagne in tip-top shape as Guillot de Morfontaine.
While there may not be as many Francophone singers in French music onstage at the Met as one would like these days, the French style is thriving in the pit where maestros like Louis Langrée and Emmanuel Villaume, Saturday’s conductor, are drawing out beautiful, carefully sculpted, and sensitive phrases from the top-form Met orchestra. While hardly a showpiece for the ensemble, the Met chorus was superb.
Manon demonstrated the Met’s complete and total capability to produce music of the best quality on a regular basis, even in a routine revival. With the standard repertoire warhorses getting a more uniformly positive treatment this past season, this bodes well for the future of opera at the Met.
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera