Flambé: Massenet’s “Manon” at the Metropolitan Opera

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.

Profitons bien de la jeunesse...

Profitons bien de la jeunesse…

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.

And the money kept rolling in from every side...

And the money kept rolling in from every side…

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


Sight but no Vision:”Iolanta” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Met

Double bills are a common phenomenon in the opera world. The most famous two are the pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci and the best pairings of operas offer either a stark contrast between the pieces-highlighting what makes each piece different and worthy of viewing in a new light- or complement each other, showing that two works by different composers have similarities through themes or musical styles. The Met’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” paired with Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” didn’t do either, and the result was an evening as inert as the snow that blanketed Lincoln Center.


Beczala and Netrebko in “Iolanta”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The first offering of the pairing that saw its final performance last night was “Iolanta”, Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale about a blind princess protected from the world. First performed at the Mariinsky in 1892(Paired with Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker), this was the work’s first presentation at the Metropolitan Opera. The music is classic-but extremely predictable-Tchaikovsky and contains some moments of beautiful music punctuated by longer, less-busy sections.

The mostly successful production, transplanted from Europe by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, moves the action to an austere hunting lodge in the woods instead of the colorful garden the piece implies. It begins with a projection(by Bartek Macias and a high point of both productions) of a deer being symbolically pursued and Treliński’s production does pose questions to the audience throughout the evening, in addition to those posed by the libretto like “What is color?”. By setting the piece in such an uncolorful place juxtaposed with Iolanta’s newly awakened desire for sight, it made me think that is ignorance sometimes acceptable? Is it better not bother seeing what we don’t know or to want to expand our horizons? Also, what makes a disability? Are there points where Iolanta’s emotional faculties are unimpeded by her lack of sight? Certainly. And this adds another layer or dimension to the piece. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into the uncreative blocking and didn’t suffice to fill points where the dramaturgy sagged. Boris Kudlička’s sets for “Iolanta” were uninteresting-a square room with a bed, a table, and some chairs- but they got the job done. Mark Heinz’s lights were fantastic and created a variety of different tones on the basic unit set and Marek Adamski’s costumes were nothing special.

Vocally, the performance was quite taut. In the title role, Anna Netrebko returned to a part that has served her career well. That said, with the darkening of her vocal color of late, Iolanta may no longer be the best fit for her voice. Netrebko lightened her voice most of the evening with the results sounding good but lacking in her typical massive volume. This was a different singer than the one that let fly as Lady Macbeth a short time ago and the better parts of the performance were those when she sang in her trademark voice- dark, silky, and thrilling. Still, she’s a consummate performer. She threw herself into the role and complemented each of her colleagues in their individual scenes in addition to using Modest Tchaikovsky’s text to create a clearer understanding of the character.

Netrebko in "Iolanta"- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Netrebko in “Iolanta”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

As her Prince Vaudemont, Piotr Beczala brought his signature illuminating voice and high comfort level onstage. His aria was phrased beautifully including a seamless shift into falsetto for the final phrase. It was a joy to watch him interact with Netrebko and spoke to the high merits of both singers to watch them perform together, especially in their rapturous duet.

Alexei Tanovitski was by far the weakest link of the cast. His gravelly bass sounds like it’s coming off the rails. He lacked charisma onstage and his weak acting and idiomatic gestures failed to create a real complex character outside of his normal blocking. He looked and sounded amateurish surrounded by such a talented cast.

Aleksei Markov’s brilliant baritone shined as Robert and Elchin Azizov was a convincing enough Moorish Doctor with a well-spun aria. Mzia Nioradze as Marta provided the typical weathered, matronly sound that’s become so common to women singing mother-figures in Russian operas, and Matt Boehler was her strong-voiced husband, Bertrand. Katherine Whyte and Cassandra Zoe Velasco complemented each other as a well sung and feisty pair of maids. Pavel Smelkov drew beautiful and sensitive sounds from the top-form Met orchestra, but often lacked the momentum to keep the piece moving forward. The Met chorus was in beautiful voice, further proving that this chorus and orchestra can perform just about everything.

Next was Bartok’s 1918 “Bluebeard’s Castle”, performed for the first time at the Met in its original Hungarian. The score is interesting and momentous. It unravels like a string on a spool with dramatic intensity building at each turn. Unfortunately, not much beyond the orchestral merits of the piece showed through. Much of Treliński’s production didn’t read well from my Family Circle seat. The libretto, by Bela Balasz, is extremely explicit. At the opening of the third door, for example, Judith exclaims, “All your precious gems are blood-stained! Your brightest jewel is blood-stained!” Not only were there no doors, there were no jewels and no blood. Treliński communicated the interactions between a twisted man and his naïve wife, but the stage action of the piece clashed completely with the libretto. Boris Kudlička’s sets required long change times during which the action was moved to an elevator that, while an innovative idea at first, was exhausting when done for longer times accompanied by a projection of an elevator descending through a shaft and the sets, frankly, looked cheap and shook when the singers made impact with them. Lights, once again by Mark Heinz, were superb, as were the numerous projections.

"Bluebeard's Castle"- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

“Bluebeard’s Castle”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Mikhail Petrenko was a vocally adequate Bluebeard, declaiming the lines with half-interest the entire time. Not particularly menacing or dominating, there was no allure to his Bluebeard, making the story seem simply unfeasible instead of making Judith seem like a rational person driven by desires and a perverse fascination with her new husband and his home. It was a Bluebeard only a mother could love.

There are a lot of things one can say about the Judith, Najda Michael. Her voice is not beautiful. In fact, it’s nowhere near. She lacks a clear dramatic temperament and doesn’t have much sense of how to use phrasing and text to build a character. She is, however, a fearless stage animal. She subscribed to the intense stage movement and choreography of theproduction, even running over the compound that composed the glass that Bluebeard shattered on the ground several times with bare feet. It looked like it hurt. She cut a glamorous figure in Marek Adamski’s costumes and looked like she gave it her all within her limitations, leading me to think that not all is lost for Nadja Michael.

Michael and Petrenko in "Bluebeard's Castle"- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Michael and Petrenko in “Bluebeard’s Castle”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Smelkov gave a restrained reading of the piece with the orchestra, once again, demonstrating exemplary playing.

In respect to any of my hopes for a revival of these productions, I can only echo Iolanta: How can I long for what I cannot understand?

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Desperate Housewife: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk at the Metropolitan Opera

Last night, the Metropolitan Opera brought back its 1994 production of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk for the first time in nearly 15 years. You can read my review about it here, on Parterre. Enjoy!

Lady Macbeth of Mtensk

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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Opening Night Closed

What a lovely opening night it was! The second portion was wonderfully executed. All of the principal singers did their arias and ensembles to perfection and the final ensemble at the end of the opera was everything one could want for it to be.

It’s been such a pleasure to live-blog/tweet this season’s opening night. Here’s to a new fantastic season with a very promising start!

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Opening Night: Intermission Post

The Met’s Figaro is going swimmingly. James Levine has maintained his signature adherence to the score. The orchestra playing is clean and clear. Ildar Abdrazakov is a wonderfully virile Figaro and Marlis Petersen’s playful voice perfectly pairs with Abdrazakov’s. Peter Mattei is a consistent pleasure to hear as the Count, and Amanda Majeski’s “Porgi Amor”, though showing some minimal nerves, was beautifully executed and her voice is especially distinctive as Mozart singers go. The act was capped off with a wonderful ensemble.

Can’t wait to hear the rest!

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Met Opening Night: Pre-Performance Post

The performance is about to start! We heard a series of relatively awkward interviews with Richard Eyre, Pretty Yende, Bryan Hymel, and Peter Gelb. We’ll speak to Anna Netrebko in a coming intermission. Celebrities in attendance:

  • Christine Baranski
  • Vera Wang
  • Susannah Phillips
  • Anna Netrebko
  • Andrew Rannels
  • Renee Fleming

Let’s get this show on the road!

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Opening Night at the Met: Everything you need to know

After cast changes, director changes, and a union crisis that almost toppled the season, it feels good to say(er, write), with certainty, that Opening Night at the Met is finally here! For those unaware, tonight’s performance is Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in a new production by Richard Eyre with sets by Rob Howell. The production stars Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro, Marlis Petersen as Susanna, Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, Peter Mattei as the Count, and Met debutante Amanda Majeski as the Countess. Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo are sung by Susanne Mentzer and John DelCarloJames Levine conducts. To see some more extensive opinions on tonight’s presentation as well as the rest of the season, I refer you to Season Predictions Parts 1 and 2.

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This is the first night of the Met’s 131st season, and there are many for you to be a part of it. The Met relays the opera live in Times Square as well as onto Lincoln Center Plaza, but a drawing for seats to the latter event was held last week. For those who aren’t able to make it into New York City, don’t fear because you can listen to the online live-stream on the Met’s website, of on channel 74 of Sirius XM radio, Metopera Radio. Coverage starts at 5:45 and includes red carpet interviews with the celebrities that only go the the Met once a year as well as specials on singers and the opera. If you’re listening at home, you can find a libretto with an English translation here.

As usual, I’ll be blogging before, during intermissions, and after about the performance. In addition to that, I’ll be live-tweeting the performance on my Twitter page. Enjoy!


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