In general I'm not a tremendous fan of French opera, but the stellar cast of the Met's current production of Massenet's Manon led me to to the cineplex yesterday to watch Anna Netrebko and Piotr Bezcala as the doomed lovers in one of the three operas based on Abbe Prevost's 18th century novella (Puccini and Auber have also adapted the story).
It's a glorious pairing of two vocal powerhouses with a solid supporting cast, everyone is decked out in great costumes, and everyone pretty much ignores the fact that they're stuck in a surprisingly poor production. Not that there's really much one can do with an opera like Manon, which is why I tend to shy away from French operas in the first place. The story (as told here) makes little sense dramatically, but with the opportunity to belt out a fantastic aria in each of the six scenes, it's easy to see why singers like Netrebko and Bezcala would be drawn to the material. No matter how lame the activity going on around them, they were sensational and had great chemistry together, which only exacerbated the disconnect between the quality of the singing and clueless production and stage design.
It's been awhile since I've heard Netrebko sing, and I was pleased to hear that while her voice has grown slightly deeper (richer?), it's still a thing of beauty. Bezcala was also an incredible joy to watch and hear. The other standouts in the cast included Paulo Szot as Manon's cousin, who wasn't slimy enough to make the interpretation really work, and David Pittsinger who was the epitome of class as the elder des Grieux.
But the set was a disaster from the moment the curtain rose, revealing a stark gray box with a staircase leading up to a promenade outfitted with handrails that looked they came from an office park in Tuscon. The next scene featured the lovers in a tiny room floating above the stage (bringing to mind Boheme), with another staircase from Tuscon leading down to the floor, but at least this staircase was put to good use when Netrebko and Bezcala stopped in the middle of it and she raised herself up by her arms, wrapped both of her legs around his waist, and pulled him to her. I almost forgot everything, including my name. It was brief, but I found it incredibly sexy and real.
The nonsense with the theme of "how one gets from here to there" continued in the next act as the stairs were replaced with wheelchair ramps, which ballerinas had to navigate around corners and through crowds to make it center stage to perform their dance (the presence of ballets are another reason I avoid French operas). It looked awkward for everyone involved, and only got worse as the ballerinas were carried offstage screaming as if they were being abducted, which didn't any sense at all.
The next scene in the St. Sulpice church had everything tilting, suggesting what? The off-kilter perspective of the characters? A world out of balance? That religious institutions are crooked? To the left onstage stood the bed from the second scene, suggesting des Grieux hasn't gotten over the loss of Manon, and the bed looked ridiculous in the church. But when Netrebko pulls up her dress, rips open Bezcala's shirt, and pulls him down onto the bed, well, that was hot, so I did momentarily forget how silly it looked in the first place.
The third act's two scenes didn't fare any better, and in the gambling den none of the actions or motivations of the characters made any sense based on how they had been portrayed thus far. Oh well- the singing was still splendid and it's worth seeing for that alone. I'd give director Laurent Pelly a pass on this one- he scored with the costumes at least, and his La Fille du Regiment was a total success on every level, so I'd be willing to see what he does next. Conductor Fabio Luisi led the orchestra in a clear, shimmering performance.