Sir Richard Eyre’s new Manon Lescaut last night—his third production at the Met in as many seasons—demonstrated once again no particular aptitude for opera and more often hindered rather than helped his stars Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna as they struggled—only sometimes successfully—with Puccini’s demanding opera. 

More than once during I thought back to what I had written on this site about Bartlett Sher after the premiere of Otello on Opening Night: “his continued prominence during the Gelb years baffles me.” What had promised to be one of the season’s highlights instead devolved into an occasionally thrilling, but ultimately dispiriting evening.

The Playbill handed to Friday’s gala audience featured three articles in its first thirteen pages alone trumpeting the appearance of superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann in Manon, but most everyone had already heard about his disappointing withdrawal due to illness. “Tenor to the Rescue,” a corrective black-and-white insert into the program, detailed Alagna’s dropping out of Pagliacci and jumping into a role he had never sung before. His heroic efforts saved the show, but his rough first traversal of the punishing role of Des Grieux (eschewed by such Puccini veterans as Corelli and, at least on stage, Pavarotti) was a mixed blessing.

His alarmingly ragged opening “Tra voi belle” caused alarm, but his ardent “Donna non vidi mai” soothed some of those fears. Though he gamely embodied Act I’s happy-go-lucky student, he was clearly more at home later as the fervently masochistic lover of the capricious Manon. However, he continued to struggle with the grueling high tessitura coming to grief both in the climax of the love duet and particularly at the end of his plangent “Pazzo son, guardate.” Yet often he enveloped the house in his uniquely appealing warmth, familiar from many Met performances since his shaky, over-hyped debut there in La Bohème twenty years ago this April. Although it’s always dangerous to speculate, one imagines he will settle into the role and future performances may be better-paced, less rocky.

Opolais, on the other hand, has often portrayed Manon over the past two years in London and Munich, but she, too, was less than ideal. A brave, fearless performer, she threw herself—with sometimes frightening intensity—into Manon’s extremes from shy country girl on her way to the convent to desperate exile contemplating her own imminent death. And yet all too often her cool, lean soprano failed to soar in Puccini’s throbbing music.

Her quietly inward “In quelle trine morbide” carefully avoided putting too much pressure on the voice, and she rose valiantly to the heavy musical and dramatic challenges of the final act, particularly in a brutally moving “Sola, perduta, abbandonata.” Earlier, “L’ora , o Tirsi” was nimbly done with a respectable trill, but she, like Alagna, was defeated by the thrilling second-act duet: there just wasn’t enough voice for its churning climaxes nor could she rise above the chorus in the immense third-act ensemble. For all her many Puccini portrayals—Cio-Cio-San returns to the Met this spring with Tosca and all three Trittico heroines rumored to soon follow, Opolais lacks the luscious Italianate timbre one covets in the composer’s music, and her avid intensity and musicality often just aren’t enough.

That Opolais and Alagna made the impact they did was generally in spite of rather because of Eyre’s dull, square, occasionally perverse direction. Other than his recent spate of Met productions, the only other operas on Eyre’s résumé are the much-revived 1994 Covent Garden La Traviata and a 2001 Le Nozze di Figaro at the Aix-en-Provence festival. As with his recent uninspired Met Werther and Nozze, his direction Friday felt like routine “work for hire.” Despite his intelligent remarks in Playbill about Manon, one had to wonder if he was genuinely interested in or moved by it.

He transported Manon from the early 1800s to 1941 for no other apparent reason than he likes to set operas in the first half of the 20th century. Rob Howell’s striking but incoherent curved sets evoked a gray amphitheater and featured steep perilous, vertiginous stairs in the first two acts. The square in Amiens effectively suggested a train station but then so did Manon’s cavernous Paris bedroom with its huge screen depicting Bronzino’s allegory of Venus and Cupid, not to mention a replica of Trajan’s column!

The ominous looming ship in the Le Havre harbor suggested we might have wandered into Der Fliegende Holländer by mistake. And if Puccini’s pulsing final duet wasn’t challenging enough, Manon and Des Grieux had to sing it awkwardly—and precariously—teetering on a perplexing indoor “wasteland” of the ruined wreckage of the previous acts’ sets. For Eyre, it represented a “metaphorical desert, a world of desolation,” but it just looked like an eyesore of a junkyard.

Before these elaborate, towering sets, Eyre placed nearly all the action at the very front of the stage, including Manon’s eye-popping pseudo-“Apache” dance-lesson/make-out session with her hunky instructor who also appeared ready to “service” Geronte. When the curtain rose at the beginning of the third act, one expected that the Intermezzo would be “staged” but all we were treated to was a guard marching back-and-forth while Des Grieux writhed in anguish at the prison gate.

The usually sure-fire deportation scene verged on the risible as each of the hyperactive prostitutes, semiclad in the tackiest boas and negligées imaginabl,e flailed broadly for her moment in the spotlight. Each was then led off only to return in a drab gray shirt-dress; inexplicably—but—conveniently Manon had already changed into her dour shift. This attention-grabbing parade of floozies was positioned front-and-center, so that one hardly noticed Manon and Des Grieux during the big ensemble. It was probably just as well as one could barely hear either Opolais or Alagna above the enthusiastic chorus.

All evening one sensed conductor Fabio Luisi was trying very hard to accommodate his challenged leading pair, but at times he just let his orchestra and chorus roar. More often than not, he chose brisk, restless tempi and reveled in some of Puccini’s most sensuous and affecting music. In spite of the uninspiring stage picture, Luisi’s vibrant “Intermezzo” throbbed with excitement, but it failed to get a rise out of an audience already grown a bit glum.

Massimo Cavalletti barked and woofed his way through Lescaut’s music, but Brindley Sherratt’s elegant and debonair Geronte was an interesting and effective take on an often caricatured figure. Tenors Scott Scully as the Dancing Master and Andrew Bidlack as the Street Sweeper outshone debuting Zach Borichevsky’s towering but lackluster Edmondo. Clad in a spiffy tux, Virginie Verrez in her Met debut led a lovely madrigal.

Although Met audiences haven’t exactly been starved for Puccini this season, other than some performances in 2008 with an urgent if miscast Karita Mattila, Manon Lescaut hasn’t been around much at the Met in the past quarter-century. Despite Eyre’s disappointingly idea-free production and Opolais and Alagna’s urgent yet underpowered portrayals of its doomed lovers, it was good to have it back. But I couldn’t have been the only one in the audience thinking about the buzz that next season Anna Netrebko will be taking on the title role at the Met. We should find out for sure this Wednesday when details of the 2016-17 Met season are due to be announced.

Photos by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera