Met’s tacky, indifferently sung “Manon” needs something like a prayer

March 27, 2012
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Anna Netrebko as the title character and Piotr Beczala as des Grieux in Massenet's "Manon." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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;

3 Responses to “Met’s tacky, indifferently sung “Manon” needs something like a prayer”

  1. Posted Mar 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm by Eddie Lew

    I’m not sure what Pelly does in France or anywhere else, but his Manon at the Met displayed an adolescent mind lacking in any sophistication or taste. Miss Netrebko, equally lacking in taste was a perfect puppet for Pelly’s shenanigans. She made a fool of herself acting the young girl and as a mature woman who only know how to swing her hips to get her man, she was nothing but a shop girl playing sophistication. Her singing was muddy, full of pitch problems with suspect coloratura.

    When will adults retake the Met again and restore the glory it once had? Gelb’s tin ear and lack of any taste or discretion is dragging this once great institution into the mud of mediocrity and pop sensibilities, and by the way, playing to empty houses. As a veteran of 55 years (yes, I saw De Los Angeles and Gedda perform Manon) never saw empty seats. Subscriptions were only gotten if a subscriber died. Today, they can’t give them away. Manon was a tragic display of incompetence, although everyone else in the cast did wonderfully. Poor Beczala deserves better, he’s a class act trapped in a stupid, juvenile production.

  2. Posted Apr 07, 2012 at 10:13 am by Alfonso Affinito

    Those who hang on to the heady treblevoiced sopranos like Sills are missing the glow of the many colored vocalism available today by artists like Netrebko and the late Callas. They display the full portrait vocally as well as physically. Nuff said

  3. Posted Apr 12, 2012 at 8:48 am by Jan Grimm

    Gelb managed to get the house around from a horrifying trip under Volpe’s regime. The performances were boring and singers outright horrible. I unfortunately remember a Abduction where the soprano (Konstanze) was so bad that we clinched even before her high notes as she was only able to deliver them yelling. How Levine could accept that remains a mystery to me. Under Gelb productions are a bit more out there, controversial, yes, but also more interesting and not with the dust of the 50s (see the old versus the new Ring cycle). Netrebko had great moments and not so great ones (agreed on the flat two top notes).