The Ironic Lady

Another grim narrative of the Gelb years, and one I think is generally hogwash, is that the Met has (at least in theatrical terms) lost its way entirely.  Those with a little less flair for offstage drama will at least acknowledge the success of an easily agreed upon core of imported productions that, in contrast to that alchemy or perhaps origami whereby successful theater directors are meant to be folded into successful opera directors, have actually marked a period of great creative innovation in the house.  

Laurent Pelly’s uneven account of Massenet’s Manon, which made its house premiere last night, doesn’t fit comfortably into this account, but doesn’t commit such grievous sins as to call it into question altogether.  Neither rapturously received like his terribly sweet and funny Fille, nor given the Bondy treatment, Pelly’s conception of the piece is tonally all over the place.  Early acts are peppered with Brechtian gestures in the key of Cute, but Manon turns out to be just the wrong opera for slightly ironic whimsy.

The Hotel de Transylvanie is inexplicable, though surprisingly wheelchair-accessible (ramps and inclines seem to be a theme here, though it’s lost on me what they’re meant to connote unless the whole thing was designed in the hope that Marjorie Lawrence would come back from the beyond for the next revival.)  In its final act, though, the physical production is so delicately grim and so right, one is disposed to forgive the rest which, after all, is more perplexing than assertively wrong.

Perhaps Anna Netrebko is especially sensitive to her surroundings.  Though she’s charming in the first act (making much of throwaway lines like “tous les deux?”, read differently each time), she does some unfortunate spinning around with her arms out—say, wasn’t that on the list of banned operatic gestures?—and living up to her unfortunate stringy wig with some “what the hell else am I gonna do?” mugging.  In the next act, the farewell to the furniture came off well, but wouldn’t have explained to someone who’d been hiding under a rock for many seasons why our Anna is on the sides of buses.

In the Cours-la-Reine, standing in front of what appears to be an enormous basketball, she is funny and alluring, if sexlessly so with her drag queen hand jive, as Manon the coquette. A pair of Ds in the gavotte apparently had better things to do than to show up and be sung, but we got on with our lives.  And in fact, one had to wonder if there wasn’t a moment like in the movies, backstage: plucky heroine falls on her face and decides that the next reel is where she shows everyone what she’s made of.  For that is what happened.

Perhaps here is the place to mention that Piotr Beczala went, this evening, from being another of the Met’s half dozen capable Edgardos to being its best asset, should French opera play a large role in coming seasons.  “Le Rêve” was a wonder of pathos and vulnerability.  In St. Sulpice, he was Netrebko’s towering equal, but in every moment of the opera, he provided the kind of hairpin turns of dynamic that matter so much in this rep, never calculated, but always precise.  The mixe is there, the diction struck my non-native ear as good (well, it helps to be compared to Trebs in this particular category), and he delivered all of this with an easy sincerity and not a little spontaneity.

The St. Sulpice scene (as Ms. Golightly was saying when she so rudely interrupted herself) found both stars vocally ablaze.  Netrebko, though she seemed to have mysteriously skipped a grade from coquette and appeared at one point about to sing “n’est-ce plus mon…”—well,l I don’t know the French word for that—was pure vocal seduction, all insecurity vanquished.  Beczala met her blow for blow.  It was a quarter hour of Why I Go to the Opera, and this continued through the Hotel Transylvanie, ordinarily a scene I half doze through but here a reminder of who has the most beautiful voice in opera (why look, it’s Anna Netrebko) and who can fill a 4,000 seat theater with the flood of sound that is her high notes (still Anna Netrebko), so fuck you, pair of Ds in the gavotte.

Let me not, in this already prolix love-in, slight the rest of the people who made great music.  Fabio Luisi led a well-paced account of the score, sincere in places where Massenet is not all confection.  Paolo Szot reminded us of his terribly handsome voice after a debut in The Nose that was hardly a vocal showcase.  Particularly on high, it’s a fine, polished instrument and he cuts a dashing figure onstage.  David Pittsinger, as the Count des Grieux,  sang with great dignity and made a case for a much more prominent role on the roster.  Christophe Mortagne did not flog the obvious notes in Guillot’s character, and it makes me wonder if they could call him back next time they do Hoffmann to redeem Frantz’s horrid couplets, such a relief it was.  The supporting cast was uniformly fine.

A bit of stage business in Manon’s seduction of des Grieux will be, I think, much remarked upon in the coming days, but my failure to mention it is my remark.  In all honesty, as I recalled the evening, it was the singing that overwhelmed other impressions.

Photo: Ken Howard. Video: Metropolitan Opera.