When asked about an invitation to become a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum, soprano Anna Netrebko candidly said that she didn’t know what the World Economic Forum was.
According to a Guardian blog, Netrebko said that she thought it was a good honor. Then she went on to talk about her diamonds instead. (The forum said that she didn’t take up the invitation.) If ever there was a singer born to play Massenet’s Manon, then it’s surely Netrebko.
She gives a performance to treasure in a new production at the Royal Opera House in London. Manon is an open-hearted, empty-headed charmer who values disposable wealth above all else, and only learns the error of her ways too late. In Netrebko’s interpretation, she starts the opera as a flighty schoolgirl. By Act 3, she’s a ravishing femme du monde in a scene-stealing pale lilac gown. By Act 5, broken and ill, the pathos she generates is so strong you can almost touch it.
She uses her warm, dark and steel-edged voice with stylish sensitivity. Her account of “Adieu, notre petite table,” in which she bids farewell to true love so she can become a wealthy courtesan, is full of touching complexity.
With his soaring top notes, handsome tenor Vittorio Grigolo (in his Covent Garden debut as Des Grieux) makes a passionate lover. A little too passionate sometimes: He doesn’t display much sense of Gallic restraint, and it lets down the dreamy aria “En fermant les yeux.” In more Italianate roles, odds are that he’ll dazzle.
Hymn to Pleasure
There are pluses and minuses to Laurent Pelly’s new production. He updates the story to the 1880s, the era of the opera’s composition, and evokes an enjoyable world of Belle Epoque frivolity and consumption. He uses stylized, choreographed movements to create terrific effects. Manon’s Act 3 hymn to pleasure is sung to an adoring group of frock-coated dandies, an amusing echo of Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
The curiously expressionist and plain sets (Chantal Thomas) don’t quite conjure the same fun. The Act 4 gambling scene, with its bare angular slopes and unpleasant neon lighting (Joel Adam), is ugly. That may be the intention. It doesn’t work, all the same.
Antonio Pappano’s dramatically acute conducting, the silken playing of the orchestra, and a star at the top of her game, offer handsome compensation.
The singing also provides one possible reason to go and see Katie Mitchell’s new staging of “Idomeneo” at the English National Opera. That’s just as well, because there aren’t any others.
Mozart’s opera is about a legendary king who finds himself in the awkward position of accidentally having vowed to sacrifice his own son. Mitchell updates the fable to a modern seaside conference center. Quite why she does this is anyone’s guess.
It may be because of her apparent lack of trust in the material. Rather than find the best way to help the singers present the emotional shape of each aria, she stuffs the stage with extras to provide distraction. Waiters hover about with drinks. Assistants cross the stage looking purposeful, and then cross back again. Some of the conference center staff pop on to have a smoochy dance during one aria. They obviously enjoy it so much, they decide to do it all over again during another. Yee gods, it was bad enough the first time.
Paul Nilon transcends his surroundings to give a beautiful account of the title role, and stops the show with his florid Act 2 aria. Emma Bell is a vocally seductive Electra, and Robert Murray (Idamante) and Sarah Tynan (Ilia) bring fresh- voiced charm to their roles.
Conductor Edward Gardner thankfully injects some drama into the playing. It’s lacking elsewhere.
“Manon” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House through July 10. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20- 7304-4000. “Idomeneo” is in repertoire at ENO until July 9. Information: http://www.eno.org or call +44-871-911-0200.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at email@example.com.