France is celebrating the centenary of Jules Massenet, its most successful Belle Epoque composer.
The country’s reigning diva, Natalie Dessay, has the title role in “Manon,” one of his two masterpieces, at the Bastille Opera. There’s also a charming exhibition at the Palais Garnier, “La Belle Epoque de Massenet.”
Dessay has played the frivolous Manon already in Geneva, Barcelona and Chicago -- yet, strangely, never before in Paris.
While her voice has lost some of its youthful sheen, Dessay is still a perfect interpreter of that complex character -- naive, coquettish, soulful and, in the end, tragic. If you want to catch her in one of the stellar moments of her career, get the DVD of her Barcelona “Manon” with Rolando Villazon as her passionate partner.
Giuseppe Filianoti isn’t in Villazon’s league. He is a small-scale Chevalier Des Grieux with a restricted top and a thick Italian accent, reminding us of the sad fact that the elegant conversational style of the Opera-Comique, where “Manon” was a staple of the repertoire since its premiere in 1884, is irretrievably lost.
Paul Gay is more at ease as the Chevalier’s father. Franck Ferrari, on the other hand, is a coarse Lescaut, Manon’s cousin. The orchestra, conducted by Evelino Pido, turns in an effective though not particularly subtle performance.
In an interview with the Bastille Opera’s house magazine, director Coline Serreau said that she saw no need to go on an ego trip: Thanks to her films she had plenty of possibilities to live out her fantasies. In fact, she has made her name in the movies; “Manon” is only her third opera staging.
That laudable modesty didn’t prevent her from falling into the bad habit of her more egomaniacal colleagues to update the plots. That she does so only partially is no great help.
What we see is an incoherent mix of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century dresses (costume designer: Elsa Pavanel). Lascaut appears as a punk rocker with metal chains and red hair.
The hostelry at Amiens in Act I looks like the main hall of New York’s Grand Central (sets: Jean-Marc Stehle and Antoine Fontaine). Instead of a coach, the two lovers flee on a motorbike.
Nor will everybody share Serreau’s fondness of visual jokes: Des Grieux’s big number in Act II, in which he daydreams about married bliss, is illustrated by a 1950s-style poster promoting kitchen utensils. The lady devotees of the preacher Des Grieux in Act III sail into his church on roller skates.
The exhibition at the Palais Garnier takes you back to where it all began. It brings together scores of Massenet’s operas, maquettes of their first productions, photos of the first casts, costumes and posters.
You also find views of Massenet’s overstuffed apartment and snapshots from his life as a professor at the Conservatoire where he taught from 1878 to his death. Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson and Georges Enesco were among his pupils.
The show confirms Massenet’s reputation as a ladies’ composer. Of his 27 operas, 17 have female title roles. With quite a few of his stars, particularly the U.S. soprano Sibyl Sanderson, his first Thais and Esclarmonde, he had more than professional relationships.
Maybe that was the reason why he hated his first name: “Jules” is French slang word for “pimp.”
“Manon” is in repertory at the Opera Bastille through Feb. 13. “La Belle Epoque de Massenet” at the Palais Garnier runs through May 13. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)