New Yorks Metropolitan Opera is continuing to stream a production every night from its rich store of recorded operas. This week it went strictly French with three operas by Jules Massenet, (Manon, Cendrillon and Werther), and the rest by Gounod (Romeo et Juliette), Berlioz (La damnation de Faust and Les Troyens) and Bizet (Les Pêcheurs de Perles).
It transmitted the 2012 production of Manon directed by Laurent Pelly and conducted by Fabio Luisi. The production boasted first-tier star power with Anna Netrebko as Manon, Piotr Beczala as the Chevalier des Grieux and Paulo Szot as Lescaut.
Netrebko sings and acts Manon, a 16-year old bimbo who is on her way to a convent. She is going against her better judgment (she wants the good life of pleasure and money) and falls in love with the Chevalier des Grieux after a split-second glance at a coach stop. Netrebko must take Manon through several stages from the innocent girl, to the passionate lover, to the high-class courtesan enjoying all the pleasures that rich and adoring old men can provide. After abandoning des Grieux for the better life she finds him as an abbé in a cathedral and seduces him. What the Sirens could not do to Odysseus she does to the devout cleric right in his church.
The role makes extraordinary vocal and acting demands and Netrebko is simply superb in every respect in a bravura performance.
Equally outstanding is tenor Piotr Beczala des Grieux, the man who falls in love with Manon and leaves all as he dreams of leading a simple life with her. Alas, even though he finds faith and goes into the clergy, passion conquers him.
Paulo Szot makes resonant Lescaut, Manons dissolute and impecunious cousin who sells her.
Pellys production replaced Jean-Pierre Ponnelles 1987 staging for the Met. The latter was a lavish, Zeffirelian affair with a horse-drawn carriage on stage and sets to put palaces to shame. Pelly and Set Designer Chantal Thomas opted for a less extravagant production and some of the scenes look downright Spartan compared to the Ponselle production.
The inn courtyard in the first scene could be a part of a castle with steps leading to the parapets. The set for the casino where huge amounts of money are bet by wealthy squanderers, looks like a party room in a motel. Pelly brought the opera to the 19th century and that allowed for more posh and imaginative sets.
The same cannot be said of the costumes. Pelly designed the costumes and they are simply dazzling. Netrebko can make a potato sack look good but she and the other ladies in the cast provide a sartorial delight. No wonder des Grieux succumbs to her sexual magnetism in church no less.
Gary Halvorson directed the performance for television which means he decided on all the camera shots and what we saw. Halvorson has the unfortunate habit of treating some productions as if they are video games. No shot should last for more than a few seconds. Even the ballet sequence is treated like that. Surely, we should be able to watch ballet from some distance without incessant changes in camera shots.
It is easy to turn your nose up at the opera if you look at its social milieu. The gorgeously dressed women are part of the meat market where rich Parisians shop for their pleasure. Manon is a shallow seeker of pleasure and money with little more than her beauty to offer. Leave that behind.
The Met Orchestra under Luisi, the outstanding Met chorus, the superb cast that shines in every way and the visual pleasure of the costumes, push all complaints to the side.
Manon was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera. For more information go to its website: www.metopera.org