13 April 2012

‘Manon’ at the Met

“Let’s take advantage of youth!”
Anna Netrebko, as Manon.

In an interview for Opera News a few years ago, the French stage director Laurent Pelly told me he’s drawn to works that possess une qualité onirique — a dreamlike quality.* Especially in opera, because singing is not the usual means of communication among human beings, Pelly doesn’t go for realism but for the heightened, the unexpected, the ephemeral, and he draws on a variety of collective cultural memories to do so. Very often, this leads to productions that please this audience, and he draws out memorable performances from artists I admire, notably from the French soprano Natalie Dessay.

Massenet’s Manon might not at first seem an ideal fit for Pelly’s distinctive vision: not least since it aspires to a particular kind of realism. (Arguably rose-tinted, but real enough.) But Pelly, who has directed more Offenbach than just about anybody alive, seems to have identified a comic-opera strain in Massenet’s score, and he seizes on it. So we get not only the toy-sized props (dollhouses to suggest the town of Amiens) and skewed perspectives that are something of a staple in Pelly’s work, but also a much broader acting style, best represented by Christophe Mortagne, who plays lecherous old Guillot de Morfontaine as if he were in a vaudeville, and at several points the cast got laughs where, I’m pretty sure, no Manon-ites ever did before.

Chantal Thomas’ set in Act I is dominated not by the toy town but by what looks like a concrete airshaft, recalling the recent controversy in Goshen, NY, over what to do with a municipal building in the brutalist style. Manon is if anything the exact opposite of brutalism, but increasingly the Met under Peter Gelb is embracing the very kind of flat ugliness that the rest of the country is so eager to demolish. (Think also of Luc Bondy’s Tosca, Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle, and Des McAnuff’s Faust.) Fortunately the cast and orchestra, under principal conductor Fabio Luisi, did their part to give our ears the lavishness that our eyes were denied.

Piotr Beczala as des Grieux.

Massenet’s opera is built around its titular heroine, just as Pelly’s production is designed as a showcase for soprano Anna Netrebko — but for this audience, the real success of the evening is the performance of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the Chevalier des Grieux. I can’t think when I’ve heard such a beautiful instrument so perfectly suited to this repertoire: Beczala’s singing hearkens to the great Nicolai Gedda’s in this role, with the same kind of liquid ease and golden hues. Without the least overstatement in sound or in gesture, he’s faithful to the mood and to the language of the character — and Beczala’s French is far better than that of my first des Grieux, Alfredo Kraus.

Netrebko’s voice is more molasses than champagne, darker and thicker than what I’m accustomed to in this role, and she didn’t attempt much coloratura here, a far cry from Beverly Sills or Natalie Dessay. But her sound struck me as much richer and more even in the house on April 11 than it had over the radio on April 7 (something that was true of several of her colleagues, as well). Above all, Netrebko is an intensely glamorous presence onstage, as Manon really must be, bursting with charisma and unrivaled physical beauty, and Pelly, who designs his own costumes, went overboard, even throwing in an extra, dramatically unjustifiable costume change before the Saint-Sulpice scene.**

Those costumes will pose a challenge to any sopranos who take over the role and are less proud of their upper arms than Netrebko (and Dessay), but they’re a potential challenge to the audience, too. Updating the opera to the time of its composition, Pelly dresses the men in period-appropriate frock coats and top hats. The trouble is that all of them look alike, a reality of which German Expressionist playwrights used to take advantage (“Herren im Frack” are a trope of the genre) but which makes it very hard to tell de Brétigny from the Comte des Grieux or even Lescaut, in the Act IV gambling scene. (That all three characters have deep voices doesn’t clarify matters.)

The updating poses a further problem in Act IV, namely that, by 1884, the word of a French nobleman was no longer sufficient to get someone thrown into prison: what makes sense in a conventional production, set around 1715, is confusing in Pelly’s staging — set 95 years after the Bastille fell. My date, who had never seen this opera before, was puzzled, to say the least.***

This raises an important question. If Pelly was going to update the production, why not go all the way and set the piece in the present day (or near-present, which is his preferred setting)? The usual excuse among stage directors is that updating makes it easier for audiences to grasp the relevance of the plot and to identify with the characters. Why is 1884 supposed to be more effective than 1715 — or 1954 — or 2012?

Brutal: Has the Goshen city council thought about selling this building to the Met?

Paulo Szot, who enjoyed an enviable triumph as Emile de Becque in the recent revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, has to push his voice to fill the Met: on this occasion, he came right up to the limit of my comfort, certainly, and during the radio broadcast he sounded as if he’d exceeded his own. While he’s an appealing artist who delivered a lively account of Lescaut’s character, I worry that he’s risking too much in the long run to keep singing at this house.

David Pittsinger cut a severe figure onstage as the Comte, but his elegant reading was undercut by spotty French diction. Language posed no problem whatever to Mortagne, the only native speaker in the cast, who effortlessly projected his spoken texts to the farthest reaches of the house. This aptitude turns out to be no surprise, after all, since he’s a veteran of the Comédie Française, but his singing proved just as pointed and flavorful as his speech, and his physicality hearkened to early French cinema: he capered as if he’d just stepped out of the chorus of a Georges Méliès movie.

At a couple of points Luisi sped up or stretched out the tempo in intriguing ways — but at this remove, I don’t remember exactly what those were. Overall, it’s interesting to hear somebody other than Julius Rudel conduct this score, but I’m still not getting the feeling that Luisi is asserting his own artistic will at the Met. However, I do feel as if I’m in thoroughly professional, utterly capable hands.

On my way to the Met, I pulled from the shelves my old copy of Prévost’s novel, Manon Lescaut, battered and marked with notes for a paper I wrote in college. It’s a hell of a story, and sexier than I’d remembered. (For example, des Grieux begins by telling us how innocent he is, a mere child who never even looked at a woman, but once alone with Manon, he discovers that he’s more of a grownup than he realized. Which is to say, he slept with her.)

The novel is told entirely from des Grieux’s point of view (which in turn is delivered to us by a narrator), and Manon speaks for herself barely a dozen times: everything else is reportage or conjecture or projection. Men make of her what they will, and that’s surely part of what Pelly was trying to get at. But Manon’s real vindication is that, while Massenet made of her what he would, she’s been speaking for herself ever since. It’s one of my favorite operas, and I encourage you to seek it out.

Another way of doing things:
Beverly Sills as Manon.
(Tito Capobianco’s staging for New York City Opera)

*NOTE: Yes, I had to look up the word “onirique” when I got home. The English cognate is “oneiric.”

**Maybe Pelly wants us to believe that Manon changes outfits in the cab on the way to Saint-Sulpice from Cours-la-Reine.

***Oh, all right, I’ll tell you who my date was: the author–actress Christina Haag. Honestly, it was the fulfillment of a college boy’s dream to take her to the opera.

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