Culture Magazine

Opera Review: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Superconductor @ppelkonen

The Met's new production of Manon is all too familiar.
by Paul Pelkonen

Opera Review: Déjà vu All Over Again

"Chéri, which opera are we in?" Anna Netrebko vamps in Act III of Manon.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera. 

The physicist Albert Einstein once defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." That maxim might apply to Peter Gelb's administration of The Metropolitan Opera, which rolled out its new production of Massenet's Manon as a star vehicle for soprano Anna Netrebko. While the cast was (for the most part) strong, their efforts were undercut by a bland mise-en-scène by director Laurent Pelly, in his second show for the Met.
Anna Netrebko wasted no time reminding the packed house that she is the biggest star in it. Ms.  Netrebko sang with soft sensitivity in "Adieu, mon petite table", her Act II soliloquy where she first abandons Des Grieux.  She broke out the big notes for the opera's Act III showpiece: "Je marche our tour la chemins"  and the Gavotte, soaring to heavenly reaches if not quite hitting Massenet's two high Ds. Ms. Netrebko produced the long vocal arcs in smooth curves, aided by an ultra-slow, almost sluggish accompaniment from conductor Fabio Luisi. Later. she tracked Mme. Lescaut's steep downward spiral, meeting the fresh vocal challenges as she became the life of the party and eventually, the agent of her own destruction.
Tenor Piotr Beczala matched Ms. Netrebko in passion as Des Grieux, the son of a nobleman who comes along for the ride. He was at his best in the two big confrontations in the church of St. Sulpice, which looked here like it had been hit by an earthquake.  Mr. Beczala brought power to the big aria "Ah fouyez, douce image." This paved the way for the grand duet with Ms. Netrebko, ending in frenzied ecstasy on a convenient nearby bed.
Their grand duet rose to an impressive double climax. The effect was spoiled when Mr. Beczala ripped open the (Velcro) front of his cassock, exposing his bare chest. This kitschy auto-defrocking recalled Leslie Nielsen in the sex scene from The Naked Gun. The audience tittered, and received the superb singing with half-hearted applause.
As Lescaut, Paulo Szot was out of his depth last night. His pleasant, light baritone remains about two sizes too small for the cavernous Met, especially again. He was ineffectual as Lescaut, Manon's libertine cousin who shepherds her along her road to ruin. Far better: bass David Pittsinger as the Comte des Grieux, singing with dark, tone and making an impressive entrance in the scene at the Hotel Transylvaina. The discovery here: comic French tenor Christophe Mortagne, making his house debut in the ungrateful role of Guillot de Montfortaine.
For no apparent reason, Mr. Pelly updates the Abbe Prevost's 18th century novel to the late 1880s, the Parisian "gilded age" and the time of the opera's premiere. There was also some some unnecessary "business" added to the action. The biggest offender: an implied mass-rape of the ballerinas of the Opera de Paris at the end of the Cours la Reine--leaving the audience with a sour taste.
Mr. Pelly's "new" production is three years old. It was first staged in 2009 by the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. It clearly shows the director (whose first opera for the Met was La fille du Regiment) indulging in many of the operatic clichés that are too common on stage today. In the Cours la Reine scene, Ms. Netrebko, decked out in an over-the-top gown, was pursued by a gaggle of choristers in black tie and top hats. There was no sense of identity with Massenet's opera--the audience might have been watching last year's La Traviata or Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!. The dull, toothless conducting from Mr. Luisi did nothing to distinguish the Met orchestra.
That feeling of interchangeability extended to the sets. Unsightly prison walls represented the courtyard of the inn in Act I as a claustrophobic place to start the story. The Act II garret floated in a void, surrounded by silent men in top hat and tails. The Cours la Reine was deadly dull, a series of ramps that proved noisy when danced upon:a challenge to the corps de ballet. All these locations could be easily recycled into an inexpensive replacement for the Met's biggest showpiece: the Zeffirelli La bohème. Perhaps that is the ultimate intent.

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