By ANTHONY TOMMASINIFEB.
With courage, determination and a healthy measure of ambition, the tenor Roberto Alagna rescued the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” which opened on Friday night. The production was thrown into crisis last month when Jonas Kaufmann, the most sought-after tenor in opera, withdrew from the entire run because of an illness he did not specify. Hoping to line up a star tenor replacement as des Grieux, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb turned to Mr. Alagna, who had never sung the role. With just 16 days to prepare a major Puccini part for an important new production, Mr. Alagna, who had been appearing in “Pagliacci” at the Met, agreed to take it on.
Mr. Alagna had to have been nervous on Friday. He sounded a little leathery and tight at first, but steadily warmed up to give an ardent, impassioned performance as des Grieux, a breezy student in Amiens, France, popular among friends, flirtatious with women. But his life unravels after taking one look at the sensual Manon Lescaut, who arrives in town with her overbearing brother on her way to a convent. Des Grieux falls for Manon uncontrollably.
Excerpt: ‘Manon Lescaut’
Roberto Alagna sings “Donna non vidi mai,” from Richard Eyre’s production of the Puccini opera at the Met.
By THE METROPOLITAN OPERA on Publish DateFebruary 14, 2016. Watch in
As Manon, the soprano Kristine Opolais sounded as glamorous as she looked. And this was another fine night for the conductor Fabio Luisi, who coaxed plush, textured playing from the impressive Met Orchestra, while bringing refreshing restraint and lucid detail to Puccini’s often teeming score.
Alas, the pointlessly updated production by the acclaimed British director Richard Eyre, with oddly monumental sets by Rob Howell, is a major disappointment. Loosely adapted from a short novel by Abbé Prévost, “Manon Lescaut” was a breakthrough triumph for the young Puccini at its 1893 premiere in Turin. Puccini alienated a series of librettists as he kept demanding changes in the text trying to get it right. Though the version he settled on leaves holes in the story the thrust of the tale is emotionally compelling thanks to Puccini’s lyrically soaring music.
As Mr. Eyre has explained in interviews, he sees elements of film noir in the opera: Manon could be a young Barbara Stanwyck. So his production, first presented in 2014 at the Festival Hall in Baden-Baden, Germany, has hints of shadowy, fatalistic 1940s films. In keeping with that noir concept, he updates the story to France during the German occupation.
But there is no discernible rationale for this particular updating, and no political content to speak of in the opera. There are class tensions, since des Grieux is a chevalier who, based on what we learn from the opera, now seems footloose and without financial resources.
As a setting for a story, occupied France is loaded with political and historical complexities. You can’t just drop an 18th century opera into that period without raising uncomfortable questions.
Act I takes place in a public square in Amiens, which in this production becomes an imposingly spacious railroad station. A tall curved wall in the background suggests a decaying facade of some once-grand building; a narrow, precipitous stairway leads up to the railroad tracks. The square is dominated by a bustling cafe, with the entrance to a fancy hotel nearby. Students and cafe regulars wearing assorted informal outfits of muted colors (designed by Fotini Dimou) chat at little tables. A group of sullen German soldiers sit together. At one point the crowd gathers around the soldiers and taunts them playfully. Could this have actually happened at a cafe in occupied France? It came across as a slick directorial touch.
Kristine Opolais, center left, and Roberto Alagna in the opera “Manon Lescaut” at the Metropolitan Opera. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Ms. Opolais’s Manon is overcome with attraction to des Grieux, feelings that unfold in the radiant warmth and sultry ardor of her singing during their romantic exchanges. But she also subtly reveals Manon’s desperation: a young woman whose father seems to have come on hard times is destined for a convent, yet quivering with desire.
Her restlessness has been observed by Geronte, a wealthy, older tax collector who met Manon and her brother on the train to Amiens, a role sung here by the coolly commanding bass Brindley Sherratt. Somehow sensing that Manon has a frivolous side and a weakness for finery, Geronte decides to abduct her and take her to Paris with him. But Edmondo, a student, (the tall, fresh-voiced young tenor Zach Borichevsky in his Met debut) learns of the plan and alerts his friend des Grieux, who persuades Manon to run away with him to Paris instead. The mellow-voiced, appealing baritone Massimo Cavallettihad his moments as Manon’s conflicted brother Lescaut, a stolid young French soldier, though he still seemed to be finding his way into this contrary and malleable character.
Puccini decided not to write a scene showing Manon and des Grieux in Paris, a curious omission. But we learn from Manon later that despite the passion she enjoyed with des Grieux, she could not abide the poverty. Instead, Puccini shows us what happens next: Manon living a life of luxury as Geronte’s mistress in his palatial Paris apartment, which is Act II.
Mr. Alagna’s des Grieux, appearing haggard yet crazed with love, bursts impulsively into Geronte’s apartment where he finds his Manon, Ms. Opolais looking like Lana Turner with blonde locks and a sequined dress. The two singers were at their most inspired during the confrontational love duet at the core of this act. The betrayed Geronte summons German soldiers to arrest Manon, who is caught trying to leave with des Grieux, her hands loaded with jewelry.
This production turns the remaining two acts, in which the convicted Manon is put aboard a ship bound for New Orleans, into a muddled, semiabstract representation of exile. At the harbor of Le Havre we see the bow of an ocean liner docked near a pier, under which a jail is visible. The ship, meant to be ominous, looks kind of cheap. Manon is pushed by German soldiers into a line of prostitutes bound for exile in New Orleans. But this plot turn would make no sense in German-occupied France. Instead, the prisoners are given dingy gray frocks to wear, again stirring up troubling questions. Are these women going to a Nazi work camp?
The last act of “Manon Lescaut” absurdly takes place in what is described as a vast arid plain outside New Orleans. (Puccini and his librettists did not know Louisiana geography.) Manon is dying of thirst and exhaustion; des Grieux tries but can’t find water to sustain her. Mr. Eyre turns the scene metaphoric: the entwined lovers are trapped in the crumbled ruins of walls and stairs from Amiens and Paris. Ms. Opolais and Mr. Alagna had to crawl unsteadily among the accordionlike ripples of those overturned stairs, which looked dangerous, not to mention ridiculous. You would think they had been exiled to the ruins of the Baden-Baden Festival.
But these two tenacious artists did their finest, most emotional singing of the night during this tragic final scene. Ms. Opolais brought anguished beauty to the grim aria “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” (“Alone, lost and forsaken”).
During the curtain calls at the end, when Mr. Alagna appeared he went straight to the prompter’s box and heartily shook the extended hand (all that the audience could see) of this production’s experienced prompter Joan Dornemann. It was a lovely gesture.