Met’s tacky, indifferently sung “Manon” needs something like a prayer
The droves of patrons who ran for the exits after the third act of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Manon missed the show’s best moment. In a fuchsia gown, shaking her hips as she proclaimed her love for lucre, Anna Netrebko as Manon enacted a creditable knock-off of Madonna’s Material Girl video, itself a riff on Marilyn Monroe’s performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The play of references led back to home. Monroe’s Lorelei Lee, a showgirl mistrusted by her fellow’s dad, is herself a Manon-like figure. And Act IV of Massenet’s opera, where Netrebko did her shimmy, pointedly recalls the climactic scene of Verdi’s La traviata (a demi-mondaine at a gambling party crashed by the tenor’s father). Violetta, in turn, in her previous life as Marguerite Gautier in Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias, is obsessed with a certain novel: none other than the Abbé Prévost’s L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut.
Director Laurent Pelly’s visual pun was clever and very much in the spirit of Massenet’s opera. Sad to say, though, that brief Madonna-inspired moment was one of the few bright spots in a clunker of a show.
The first problem: the leading lady. Massenet’s music requires lithe phrasing, pellucid enunciation, and fastidious good taste, all missing from Netrebko’s arsenal of strengths. She sings and speaks French as if she has stones in her mouth, and on Monday evening she was in worrisome vocal form. Her voluptuous, satiny sound surfaced only fleetingly in a sea of smudged phrases, unsteady tone, and drifting pitch (including two excruciatingly flat high notes). Dramatically she gave a generalized presentation of Manon’s downward trajectory from galumphing gamine to posh courtesan and bedraggled waif. Still, anyone who has heard even audio alone of Victoria de los Angeles or Beverly Sills as Manon has encountered a more vivid and searching depiction of Massenet’s girl gone bad.
The production, with costumes by Pelly, sets by Chantal Thomas, and lighting by Joël Adam, serves up the watered-down Regietheater clichés favored at Peter Gelb’s Met. Its strong verticals—ramps, staircases, even a Ferris wheel—connote Manon’s dizzying rise and fall. In every scene, she is the object of the male gaze, cast by natty fellows in top hats who also peer up the skirts of the Taglioni-style ballerinas in Act III and kick and spit on Manon in her final disgrace. The ready availability of a bed in the Saint Sulpice scene portended ill, and hilarity ensued—but not the good kind. The show’s only arresting element was the lopsided, bilious green nightmare of a set in Act IV, which briefly roused the performers and the orchestra under Fabio Luisi to make actual music drama.
Though he was stretched to his vocal limits in the uppermost reaches of his role, Piotr Beczala was an ardent and dignified Chevalier des Grieux. His voice is honeyed, cultivated, and solid throughout its range, and his every utterance of Manon’s name in the last scene told of shifting emotions: tenderness, rapture, and despair. As the Count Des Grieux, David Pittsinger sang and acted with authority and bite; he and the cast’s lone native French speaker, Christophe Mortagne as the lascivious nobleman Guillot de Morfontaine, shared honors for style and crisp delivery of lyrics and spoken dialogue.
Paolo Szot as Lescaut and Bradley Garvin as De Brétigny sang well and played the macho brutes with energy. As the cocottes who inspire Manon to take up the oldest profession, Anne-Carolyn Byrd, Jennifer Black, and Ginger Costa-Jackson dazzled. Philip Cokorinos, Alexander Lewis, David Crawford, and Kathryn Day were effective in smaller roles.
Fabio Luisi led a workmanlike reading of Massenet’s perfumed score. The Act II quartet teetered on the brink of chaos, while the driving, nervous stabs of sound in the Hôtel de Transylvanie scene injected some much-needed turbulence into the proceedings. The chorus under Donald Palumbo sang superbly in the Cours-la-Reine scene, but as for the show as a whole, the Jacobins might have had the best idea: off with their heads.
Manon runs through April 23, with a Live in HD transmission on April 7 and encore presentations in the U.S. and Canada. 212-362-6000; metopera.org.