I can’t recall ever hearing anyone, even the craziest opera nut, say: “I am just dying to see ‘Manon’ by Massenet!”
And after last night at the Metropolitan Opera, I am pretty sure I never will.
First heard in 1884, “Manon” has some very beautiful music that rises from the stage in perfumed little puffs.
It’s rarely played, for good reason. After a few hours, you think: “Quand est-ce que cette femme va crever?” “Manon” goes on forever with two intermissions. We sat down at 7:30 and creaked from our seats four hours later.
Where to begin?
The doomed love affair at its heart takes place in the 18th century, a time of perukes, paniers, satin britches, fans, beauty marks. Think of the dreamy paintings of Watteau or Fragonard.
Like Puccini’s more dramatic “Manon Lescaut,” the libretto is based on a mournful tale by the Abbe Prevost describing how the young Chevalier des Grieux ended up in Louisiana with a venal teenager who was heading to a nunnery.
Even the sturdiest heart surely sank as the Met’s curtain rose on what looked like a prison courtyard topped off by a gray sky.
A vertiginous staircase rises to a second level decorated with doll houses. There’s no sign this might be the inn at Amiens as described by Massenet -- and he really was so modest in his demands compared to say, Richard Wagner!
If the economy goes south, we just might see that set recycled into a production of “Wozzeck,” a somewhat darker piece about a homicidal loser.
This “Manon” -- a coproduction with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden -- reflects the uninteresting ideas of director Laurent Pelly, who also designed the costumes. He left Chantal Thomas to work up the little sets, which still require long pauses for scene changes.
Act II’s Parisian garret looks like it was hammered together in a garage -- and prompts wistful memories of the far more enchanting garret conjured up by Franco Zeffirelli for his wondrous “La Boheme.”
Pelly does not respect Massenet’s masterpiecelet and seems tone deaf to its delicate charm.
He updates the period to around 1900, presumably to make it darker and more serious. It is a fatal mistake.
Many operas float free of their period, propelled by such timeless emotions as envy, obsession, rage, love. A director can imprint them with his own obsessions.
“Manon” is not one of them.
It’s all about Rococo frippery and frou frou. There is no essence and there are no deep characters to explore. The later era wreaks havoc on a plot with historic references and different mores.
Sadly, this dull show replaces a dazzling production by the master of all masters, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose Cours-la-Reine scene was utter magic with its acrobats and flouncing beauties.
In the present production we get a cheap-looking pleasure park with awkward ramps, a dim ballet and a weird orange shape in the back which I hoped was a balloon that might take off.
But nothing does in this inert show, except some of the singing.
Anna Netrebko leaves me conflicted: She has slimmed down since her poster pictures and yet she seems to have outgrown the part, coming off as studied and too mature. There’s a marvelous sheen to her voice, but the trembling emotions of a teenager are rarely inflected.
The real star was her chevalier, Piotr Beczala, a refined tenor with a heavenly pianissimo. He’s a lively actor and handsome too. Even so, he might reconsider ripping off his churchly shirt to reveal his bosom in the dismally staged St. Sulpice scene, which features three slanting columns and an awkward cot. Lots of hearty laughter and snorts in my area.
Christophe Mortagne offered a spritely debut as Guillot de Morfontaine, who orchestrates Manon’s downfall after too many cruel rejections. David Pittsinger made about as much as a human can of Comte des Grieux, the chevalier’s father.
Why doesn’t Pittsinger get leading roles here? I remember him from “South Pacific” next door at the Beaumont when he replaced sexy Paulo Szot, who was also on stage in this “Manon.” Szot sang Manon’s cousin, a role that defines nothingness. What is happening to his career?
Fabio Luisi could have picked up the pace in the pit.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)