New York, N.Y. — The buzz in the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday evening was not about the new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and what it would be like. It was about the fact that superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann had withdrawn from the production with little notice and ticket holders were not happy about it. Empty seats in the reportedly sold out house said that some didn’t even bother to show up.
“I can’t believe he did this to me again,” one patron grumbled as though Kaufmann’s withdrawal was solely due to a spat with her. The printed program didn’t help assuage the disappointment with a piece entitled “Chemistry Lesson” extoling the flying sparks and Love Potion No. 9 chemistry between drop-dead handsome Kaufmann and the opera’s Manon, blonde bombshell soprano Kristine Opolais.
The story quotes her like this: “I feel I can live these emotions for real during our performances…” Swoon.
Well, into this atmosphere, a very brave Roberto Alagna, currently singing Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci for the Met, stepped in to the role: a new one for him. He had just over two weeks to cram the demanding role, with the pressure of a new production added in. His effort was as heroic as his ringing high notes.
Early on, it became apparent that he always sang facing out, the led to the thought “how tenor is that?” But the Met has a prompter box and Alagna took full advantage of the amenity. He showed his gratitude for the assistance by shaking the invisible prompter’s hand when he took his bows at the end of the opera.
What is it with director Sir Richard Eyre moving operas to unlikely time periods with no apparent gain? This is the second Eyre production for the Metropolitan Opera uncomfortably stuck in modern-day war zones. This production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut transports the action to the 1940’s during Nazi occupation of France. Not only does this lack justification, or teach us something new, it creates several glaring anachronisms in the plot line. For example, we can safely assume that convicted French whores, thieves and other riffraff were no longer deported to New Orleans, but that is what happens in the third act.
On Monday, another Eyre effort, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (reviewed here) was abruptly moved to the time of the Spanish Civil War when the droit du seigneur, around which the plot revolves, was long gone.
The two Eyre productions also share designer Rob Howell, who delivered massive sets for both. In Manon Lescaut, the consistently cold blue gray sets feature a gigantic stage floor-to-heaven convex wall across the back that incased the action like some huge morgue.
The first act is set in a desolate train station patrolled by menacing jackbooted-armed guards. Des Grieux, sung ardently by Alagna, is a handsome young student. He has a chance meeting with the extremely beautiful and very young Manon, who arrives in a hellish armored train belching steam.
She is portrayed by the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais. (She is married to Andris Nelsons, the dashing conductor of the Boston Symphony.) Opolais certainly has the voice for the role. She also has the striking physical glamour required, although her powerful voice is not an intrinsically beautiful instrument.
Manon is on her way to a convent, chaperoned by her soldier brother, convincingly sung by baritone Massimo Cavalletti. Her parents want her safely tucked away. They obviously saw lots of trouble ahead for their daughter, who wants a glamorous life and knows that her power over men can get it for her. She spots Des Grieux and their attraction is mutual. She also catches the eye of Geronte, sung with more authority and less lechery than usual by the bass Brindley Sherratt. He approaches Manon’s easily corrupted brother and arranges to carry her off.
Des Grieux’s friend, Edmundo, sung by tenor Zach Borichevsky in his house debut, overhears the plot. He has a strong lyric voice that promises a fine career ahead. He is also very tall, a trait that was exaggerated by his improperly designed costume: high-waisted gray slacks that made him look like he was on stilts. Thanks to Edmundo’s warning, Des Grieux and Manon run off together before Geronte can make his nefarious move.
Puccini skips a lot of plot. He doesn’t show the two lovebirds in their shabby Paris apartment and her upgrade to better digs as Geronte’s courtesan, leaving Des Grieux brokenhearted. The second act takes place in Manon’s quarters in Geronte’s mansion. The ever-present massive wall now resembles a prison to contain Manon with only one possible exit or entrance: a slender staircase that rises to a golden door that is just shy of the top.
Manon is certainty glamorous. She is in a slinky dress and her blonde hair in precise Marcel waves. Her boudoir fills with all sorts of people from a lecherous dancing master to a vocal ensemble singing a madrigal extolling her beauty written by Geronte. Manon’s brother realizes his sister’s boredom with the situation and finds Des Grieux. Geronte enters at an awkward moment. Of course, Geronte calls the police and the two lovers are caught trying to flee: Manon’s hands full of the evidence of theft: ropes of pearls and other gem-encrusted jewelry.
In the third act, the gray wall evokes a pier with the bow of a blue gray freighter, way too small for ocean navigation. Manon is in a line of disreputable women being deported to who knows where (with the original destination of New Orleans unlikely). The gals parade by in some fun whore-like costumes, from hot pants to a Follies Bergère chorus girl outfit. However, they are soon changed into gray smocks before boarding the ship. This created the unavoidable implication that they were on their way to Nazi gas chambers and, intended or not, it was offensive to many and completely unnecessary. However, Alagna was at his best with his impassioned plea to get on the ship and go with Manon to, well, parts unknown.
The last act finds the two lovers wandering in what a projection called “a wasteland,” escaping from wherever they were. The stage is strewn with the rubble of the ever-present massive, but now destroyed, blue gray edifice. Maybe it was bombed by the Allied forces or perhaps the victim of a massive earthquake.
Manon and Des Grieux are nearly dead from exhaustion and dehydration. Their acting task was made nearly impossible by having to play the entire act on what appeared to be a fanfold steel roof that is now the floor. The accordion folds were only about two feet high and three feet apart. Both singers slipped on them repeatedly. Manon finally lies down; her body ridiculously bent into a “V” at the waist and a bunched up dress left her legs bare.
However, the singers managed to rally vocally and both delivered heartbreaking performances. Opolais was absolutely stellar in her big aria, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata.”
Conductor Fabio Luisi did a magnificent job. He allowed the romantic music to flow in waves of sound but never covered the singers. His tempi were precise and he kept all of the rubato Puccini includes in almost every measure within the overall tempo concept. He was always right with the singers and gave them room when they wanted it to extend a phrase or glory in a particularly well-placed high note. The orchestra sounded marvelous and was responsive all the way.
It was a performance marked by wonderful singing and believable acting only slightly marred by Eyre’s bizarre film noir concept of Manon as Barbara Stanwyck in her pinup days.