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Richard Eyre Brings New Dimension to "Manon Lescaut" at the Metropolitan Opera

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Manon Lescaut
At the
Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera House

Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Based on the Abbé Prévost novel,
L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut
Domenico Oliva, Marco Praga, Luigi Illica, et al.
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Production: Sir Richard Eyre
Set Designer: Rob Howell
Costume Designer: Fotini Dimou
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Choreographer: Sara Erde
Revival Stage Director: Paula Williams
Chorus Master: Donald Palumbo
General Manager: Peter Gelb
Music Director Emeritus: James Levine
Principal Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Manon: Anna Netrebko, Soprano
Chevalier Des Grieux: Marcelo Álvarez, Tenor
Lescaut, Manon’s Brother: Christopher Maltman, Baritone
Geronte Di Ravoir: Brindley Sherratt, Bass
Edmondo: Zach Borichevsky, Tenor
Met Cast as:
Madrigal Singers, Dancing Master, Hotel Manager,
Musician, Sergeant, Street Sweeper, Sea Captain
Solo Dancer: Martin Harvey

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 25, 2016

Manon Lescaut (1893)
(Read the plot of the opera, Manon Lescaut here.)

Richard Eyre’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is set in a similar minimalist scenic design as was Laurent Pelly’s 2012 production of the Massenet opera, Manon, also reviewed on these pages. The narrative source of both operas (and ballet) is the Abbé Prévost novel, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. The versatile and eloquent soprano, Anna Netrebko, appeared as Manon in both productions, even, if possible, more ravishing and charismatic tonight, paired with the very masculine tenor Marcelo Álvarez, as the student, Des Grieux. A link to the renowned plot is above. Rather than place Manon in late 18th Century France, Mr. Eyre places the action in Nazi-occupied Amiens, Paris, and Le Havre, followed by a New Orleans regional “wasteland”. Some of the imagery is black-white, chiaroscuro shadows and corners, in film noir ambience. Yet, the chemistry and heat between Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Álvarez is so thick that the scenery becomes obtuse and secondary, at times, especially in the tragic, anguish-filled finale.

A train station in Amiens opens Act I, with Geronte, a well-attired tax collector (bass, Brindley Sherratt) and Lescaut, a French soldier in uniform (baritone, Christopher Maltman) arriving to escort Manon to a convent, at her father’s request, in response to Manon’s lifestyle as a free-wheeling courtesan. Edmondo, a songwriter, (tenor, Zach Borichevsky) and Des Grieux observe the family drama, and Des Grieux is struck with instantaneous love for Manon. Des Grieux offers an escape plan to Manon, and Geronte and Lescaut plot to kidnap Manon, with some cloudy intentions in the narrative. In fact, following the translations of the Italian lyrics on the Met prompter, there seemed little coherence between songs and the program’s synopsis. Judging from the fact that Puccini hired five librettists, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva, and Luigi Illica, in the late 1800’s, communication may have been thin. Meanwhile, Manon and Des Grieux flee to Paris, with Lescaut and Geronte consoling themselves with the assurance that Manon is more in love with jewels and a fine home than with any one man, and that she’ll soon be free for the asking.

Act II is set in Geronte’s Parisian mansion with Manon surrounded by hired help, plush furnishings, a gorgeous long staircase, boxes of jewels, and mirrors. Indeed, after a few months, she left Des Grieux for Geronte, with Puccini skipping fabulous scenes included in the Massenet version and in the MacMillan ballet, scored to Massenet. A madrigal concert ensues in Geronte’s massive home, yet Manon is consumed by ennui and her memories of being embraced by Des Grieux. Lescaut, in a change of heart, finds Des Grieux, who magically appears while Geronte is out. The elderly, possessive, rejected husband returns to find his wife and former lover entwined, and he leaves in a fury. Instead of fleeing together in the moment, Manon takes time to collect her pearls and diamonds, while the police arrive and arrest Manon at the demand of the prominent and wealthy Geronte. The orchestra plays an “intermezzo”, gorgeous and impassioned, prior to Act III.

The scene opens with an enormous ship docked in Le Havre and a backstage prison, where the French prostitutes are paraded, one by one, to be forced onto the ship that’s about to sail to New Orleans. Each fallen woman, in tart-styled costumes and wigs, laughs and giggles at the soldiers and police, as the women are individually noted in the written manifest. Lescaut had bribed a guard for Manon to share some private moments with Des Grieux, part of a plan to once again escape. But the plan is undone, and, finally Des Grieux, after aiming a rifle toward the guards, successfully begs on bended knee to sail as a deck hand to Louisiana, to be close to his beloved Manon. The Act IV New Orleans wasteland consists of grey-black shapes like hills, crevices, and rocks. Manon pleads for water, but, after an offstage search, Des Grieux returns desolate, as he could find not a soul, not even sight beyond the empty horizon. Manon wants, in her dying moments, for Des Grieux to remind her of her original, essential beauty and to speak of fond memories. What Manon and Des Grieux do achieve in their last moments of intimacy is the knowledge that each is truly loved.

Ms. Netrebko sang with luscious, deep tones, at times as a mezzo, at times in the soprano’s highest reach. Her range is extraordinarily expansive, and her dramatic capacity is compelling, persuasive, and quintessentially “operatic” in angst and vulnerability as well as in frivolity and seduction. This exquisite soprano becomes her character, psychologically and emotionally, beyond theatrics. Ms. Álvarez is a tenor I hope to see and listen to many times more, but the mutual chemistry of the leads was the catalyst for the evening’s success. This is the second cast of the Eyre production, and I’m thrilled to have experienced this duo. Mr. Álvarez’ range, as well, is monumental and impressive, and his generous spirit shone through. Mr. Sherratt, as the exploited and abandoned Geronte, seething with jealousy and revenge, was perfectly cast for his gentlemanly posture, height, and manner, a retro visage of the 1940’s fatalist, film noir genre. His deep bass vocals pierced the opera house, up to my dress circle box. Mr. Maltman, as the conflicted and conspiring Lescaut, has a clear resonant baritone voice and dramatic persona. Of particular note, Martin Harvey, a ballet and Broadway dancer reviewed on these pages dancing at a gala with his offstage partner, City Ballet Principal, Maria Kowroski, performed an evocative solo tonight, a quasi-seduction dance with Manon during the Paris scene.

Conductor of this sumptuous Puccini score, Marco Armiliato, was drenched in adoration from the sold-out audience, beaming at every orchestral spotlight. He also showcased his musicians with frequent standing bows. Rob Howell’s sets seemed to work with the Richard Eyre production, although I know of no deserts in Louisiana. Yet, the war-torn buildings and palaces certainly evoked the German occupation. Moreover, the railroad scene with courtyard and an elevator into a fine hotel, the Parisian scene with a decorated staircase, the Le Havre port scene, with a looming, industrial ship, and the final bare, rocky wasteland with walls of burnt-out buildings were each gripping in the moment. Fotini Dimou’s costumes were especially elegant in Paris and transporting in Le Havre, when the decorative prostitutes boarded the ship. Lighting and sound were impeccable. Kudos to Ms. Netrebko, Mr. Álvarez, and Maestro Armiliato. And, kudos to Puccini whose music and lyrics throughout the four acts was spellbinding; Manon’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” was transcendent. And, now I will listen to Anna Netrebko singing this gorgeous aria.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at