Cher Public

Gone girl

mirror-manonSir Richard Eyre’s puzzling production of Manon Lescaut returned to the Met last night, following last season’s premiere in February. Its  concept, which updates the novel’s 18th century time frame to 1940s France, continues to remain elusive and frustrating. And yet, despite this unsatisfying aspect, the evening was redeemed through the sheer star wattage of Anna Netrebko—whose Manon was deeply unforgettable for its wide scope, control, and incredible virtuosity. 

A role like Manon requires keen flexibility—the soprano must manage the fantastic leaps the character undertakes between parochial innocence, urbane sophistication, and despair. In the past, I have loved Netrebko’s conviction and fearlessness—sometimes verging on the edge of a campy dream, singular in personality, bombastic, and indulgent in the best possible way.

However, her Manon revealed a musician and actress whose technique is as formidable as her heart. Emotional, vocally resplendent, and committed dramatically, Netrebko brought her unique vitality to the role. In fact, Netrebko’s undertaking of Manon felt historic, full-throttled and gutsy, with her trademark old-school voluptuousness.

Manon Lescaut’s narrative investigates the pressures of patriarchy on female subjectivity. Not exactly a feminist text, the opera nevertheless makes a case for liberation politics through its depiction of female objectivity and suppression. And yet, the opera fails to offer (thankfully) any prescriptive agenda. The result is an experience that troubles through its ambivalence, enacting on its protagonist the lose-lose constraints of patriarchy.

Manon careens wildly between the feminine archetypes favored by patriarchy—beginning as a young, fresh county girl (the virgin), morphing into to a femme fatale of Parisian society (the whore), and expiring in desperation, exiled and forgotten (the martyr—“Sola, perduta, abbandonata” indeed). It’s likely Puccini did not intend for his opera to be read in such a manner—in fact, the novel by Abbé Prévost upon which the piece is based, has been widely interpreted as a warning to the young women of his period. However, where Manon Lescaut works so wonderfully is in the moments in which it undermines its own sense of morality, highlighting the systemic misogyny that both elevates and shatters women.

Marcello Álvarez served a consistent counterpoint to Netrebko’s versatile Manon, as Des Grieux, though his role calls for far less variation. His interpretation of the character seemed relatively naïve—a brave little fool, overwhelmed in the face of such epic sadness. But what other kind of man follows his lover into the despair of Louisiana?

While much is made of Manon’s fresh-faced innocence within the opera, the key to Des Grieux’s tragedy is that he is just as unworldly as Manon, unsophisticated regarding the extent of suffering one might bear for love. The tenor’s aggressive singing amplified  this mock-heroism, with a robust, romantic, and secure performance, especially during the famous “Donna non vidi mai.”

manon-desertAs Lescaut, Manon’s passive brother, the intelligent baritone Christopher Maltman provided a perspective beyond the lovers’ cocoon of obsession, desire, and grief. In the past, I have often found the character dispensable, a mere function within the plot’s machinery. But Maltman brought genuine warmth to the role.

Brindley Sherratt was appropriately menacing as Geronte di Ravoir, cold and reptilian in his depiction of moneyed sexism. While other singers might force a bumbling silliness on the character (almost like a lighted-hearted version of Death in Venice’s Aschenbach) Sherratt allowed the character to embody a dangerous guile.

Whether or not these thoughtful performances redeem the scattered, detached effects of the production’s staging is a difficult conclusion to determine. So much of Eyre’s direction seems thoughtless. Most saliently, I spent much of the evening trying to figure out why the plot has been updated to 1941, though there seem to be no overt references to occupied France. Perhaps the soldiers are meant to be Nazis? And yet, there are no Swastikas or other Nazi references to make this idea explicit.

In the third act, as the various women are called forward to be deported, they are dressed like hopefuls at an open call for a regional production of Gypsy. Moreover, they are directed into various sight gags that play uncomfortably into caricatures of sex workers. Besides being distasteful and completely uninteresting, this business is insulting to the historical realities of women. This moment, one of the most disturbing within the opera, has the potential to complicate and broaden Manon’s pathos. Instead, it was utilized for laughs.

In retrospect, the production in general seems a lost opportunity. Our national community (not to mention our Global one as well) is currently embroiled in the rhetoric and discourse of alterity—specious accusations towards certain populations (by elected officials, nonetheless) regarding their supposedly noxious effects on the economic and cultural health of our troubled country; not to mention, there have been a large rash of awful hate crimes within the last week.

Indeed, I would be remiss if I were to forget that Manon is deported as an undesirable. With this thought in mind—why remove the tragedy of Manon Lescaut to the 1940s? It almost seems irresponsible to distance these experiences so pointlessly, when it would be more effective to update the opera to a contemporary setting; the truth is that we are living these terrifying notions today.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

  • La Cieca

    “If there remained doubts in anyone’s mind that Anna Netrebko ranks with the great divas of operatic history, last night’s performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut should dispel them completely. I thought I had come to know this opera pretty well in the 40 years since I first heard it in New Orleans, but Netrebko’s volcanic singing and dazzling acting in this part made me feel like I was present at a world premiere.”

    Our Own JJ was overwhelmed!

    • Krunoslav

      “Sei tu chi piange”

      My favorite moment in the whole opera!

    • Leontiny

      I agree. After listening to the stream and the previous recording from Europe she sounds like she was born to sing this role. And this without seeing any visuals. The complete commitment, blazing intensity, the range of vocal colours and dynamics. A real piece of vocal acting, and thrilling. The music was in her. I hope there will be a DVD or some visual record.

  • Krunoslav

    “Most saliently, I spent much of the evening trying to figure out why the plot has been updated to 1941, though there seem to be no overt references to occupied France. Perhaps the soldiers are meant to be Nazis?”

    See the uniforms in the pics. Also, the Act II scene with Geronte’s hangers-on was clearly meant to suggest collabos of the Cocteau ilk.

  • PCally

    I like netrebko a lot but I have to admit I didn’t quite completely feel the same way the reviewer and JJ seem to. It’s a perfect role for her, vocally and dramatically, but it really seemed to take her a very long time to warm up and the bottom felt a bit pushed and hollow. The final act was spectacularly sung and acted and I think I plan on going later in the run since opening nights are not necessary reflective of what singers are like at their best, but I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed by her performance in particular.

    • LMacbeth

      My same feelings more or less. I wrote this elsewhere:
      I had other commitments last evening so could only listen to the first two acts. Did things improve? Based on what I heard I thought Anna was not in good voice, singing under the note and seemed unmotivated, maybe tired, the voice hollow and insubstantial. But was the unmotivation the result of the lacklustre conducting? Because there were plenty of gaps and holes.

      • Degan

        I didn’t hear or see this but I was in Vienna in summer for her ML. Also I was not really impressed with Act 1 and first part of Act 2 until the Act 2 entrance of Dex Grieux. There the real AN show started and it was impressive.
        My only critics would be in Act 2 that she sang her last lines after Sola, perduta… we’re sung with to much power for a dying woman. Compared with Opolais, Netrebko wins by voice, Opolais by acting (especially Act 4).

        • “Also I was not really impressed with Act 1…”
          -Well she hasn’t much to sing, has she? But still, you’re right. I’m used to that by now, and I think that is Anna’s basic MO. She’s always been a ‘one scene to warm up’-type gal, especially now, in her bountiful vocal and artistic maturity. By the climax of “In quelle” she was on point, and sang as fine a “L’ora o Tirsi” as I’ve ever heard, and the rest went from glory to glory. If only her Des Grieux matched her vocal splendor. Alvarez is a fine singer, and a smart one, but also a size too small, not necessarily in volume, but in vocal circumference.

          • Degan

            Well I would say that nobody dies that nice like Angie, especially as Violetta and Mimi…

            • Diva2themax

              Agreed Angela is a great die-er. Her Violetta death is beautiful.

    • Lohenfal

      I was at the dress rehearsal last Thursday. Anna was in spectacular voice and did more with the role than anyone else I’ve ever heard. JJ’s review accurately describes what I experienced.

  • leoniceno

    I missed the audio stream -- Does anyone know if it’s still possible to hear it? I see it’ll be on the radio on Dec. 3, but I will be at Les Troyens in Chicago during that broadcast (yay!)

    • Lohenfal

      The Dec. 3 broadcast will also be on BBC Radio 3, which means that it would be available for the following 30 days. It might also be carried on the Irish station Lyric FM, and they also preserve the Met broadcasts for the following month.

      • leoniceno

        Thank you!

    • Yige Li

      Russian’s having everything archived:

      • Dayum! Thank you ?.

        I’m going to try and see her in this role in one of the upcoming performances.

        I caught a bit of that live Q&A on Facebook earlier today from the Met during my lunch break and all I have to say is 1) her new hair color looks great and 2) I was astounded to hear she is adding even more roles to her repertoire besides the ones we already know about, i.e. Aida, Chenier, Turandot and Adriana Lecreuvrer. Oh and Tosca of course. I wonder what the other ones will be? ????.

  • I saw this last night. i was not as bowled over by Anna N’s portrayal: