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BWW Review: Kaufmann's Out, Alagna's In with Opolais in Met's New Film-Noir MANON LESCAUT

Kristine Opolais as Manon Lescaut and
Roberto Alagna as des Grieux.
Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Take one part "Casablanca," another part "Citizen Kane," a taste of Bernstein's CANDIDE, some Alfred Hitchcock and throw in a little "The Postman Always Rings Twice" for good measure and you get Sir Richard Eyre's film noir concept for the Met's new MANON LESCAUT, now set in France in the 1940s, complete with Nazis. Tack on that behind-the-scenes drama of "Roberto Alagna to the rescue"--when tenor Jonas Kaufmann cancelled at the last minute (two weeks before the opening counts as "last minute" in the world of opera)--and add the visual and vocal glamour of soprano Kristine Opolais and you have, well, a messy-but-enjoyable evening at the opera.

MANON LESCAUT may have been Puccini's first big success but it already showed some of the hallmarks we would take for granted in his other work: the passion, the style, the musicality--and the leap of faith that he demands of audiences. The opera seems to be missing some connective threads (see TOSCA), particularly between Acts I and II--where we go from seeing the girl who is getting ready to go into the convent to the woman who waivers between the love of luxury and the love

We know what's missing because Jules Massenet was more literal in translating the same love story by Abbé Prévost, L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (The Story of des Grieux and Manon Lescaut), into his own MANON more than 15 years earlier. He included a gorgeous tableau in the impoverished lovers' apartment in Paris, where Manon bemoans the loss of her "little table" as their domestic bliss is about to end (because his money has run out). The composer also had the glamorous "Cours-la-Reine" scene, where Manon gets to revel in how great her life has become.

Whether Puccini--and it was the composer, not the librettists, who was the boss--decided to differentiate his take on the story by leaving out these details or was showing his lack of experience I can't say. What we have left are the multiple climaxes of Act II, with its "recognition" scene [where des Grieux reconnects with Manon], its "bodice ripper" [where the two want to rip off each other's clothes, but don't] and the first segment of its unhappy ending [Act III and Act IV have two more aspects of it].

Act II is stuffed to the gills with details showing who Manon really is. In her "glitter and be gay" moment, soprano Opolais cut a gorgeous figure--as the kept woman of Geronte, who Prévost described as a "tax collector," a petty bureaucrat, but comes off as older, but still suave here. She was also a Susan Alexander Kane-like (the would-be opera singer wife of Citizen Kane) character, performing for guests like a trained pet. Puccini's Madama Butterfly might be a better role for her, but Opolais looked and sounded wonderful, from her entrance in Act I (though I'm not sure anyone can really pull off that schoolgirl thing in Act I) to her hushed, poignant singing in "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" before she expires in Act IV.

After reading a Playbill filled with articles on the chemistry between Opolais and Kaufmann (who'd sung the roles together previously), I think Alagna showed supreme confidence in jumping into the fray but, while he certainly had his moments, he was still under-prepared. He sometimes seemed more intent on getting through the performance (on February 15, the second night of their run) than on making a better connection with Opolais, though their big duet in Act II ("Tu, tu amore...") definitely had its impact.

Part of the blame must go to the director. I'm not sure that Eyre is a natural opera director--his NOZZE DI FIGARO for the Met was a flop--but his considerable theatrical chops led him to retreat from the powdered wigs of the Met's old production into mid-20th century, and that was a good idea. (Replacing them with Nazis was not; they simply add nothing to the action and feel gratuitous, at best.) But he comes from the theatre world where, when a calamity happens, i.e., the last minute replacement of the star, you can get an additional couple of weeks' worth of previews before the opening. In opera, of course, no such thing can happen. "The show must go on," and it's a tribute to everyone involved that it did as well as it did.

Eyre's most questionable directorial choice, though, had nothing to do with Alagna or Opolais, but Act III, as Manon waits to be deported, along with other women of "questionable" morals. The ladies traipsed out of their cell, one by one, as if they were about to do "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from GYPSY (I loved the Mazeppa with blue plumes), with costumes by Fotini Dimou. They completely distracted attention from Manon and des Grieux, until they all changed into their prisoner drabs (except for Manon, who was somehow already appropriately dressed for prison and, thus, didn't have to break the mood). There should be nothing funny in this scene and this travesty destroyed the rhythm of it.

The physical production by Rob Howell (lighting by Peter Mumford) may not have had much to do with Puccini's original setting, but much of it worked on its own terms. Act I, supposedly "a square in Amiens," looks more like Paris in scale, specifically the Palais de Trocadero, the monumental arts campus that sits directly across the river from the Eiffel Tower. I rather like the feel of Act II, which looked like Hearst's castle, San Simeon (the inspiration for Kane's mansion in the film). But Act IV seemed to be Howell's take on the bombing of London after the Blitz (he is British), which didn't seem at all right--and was treacherous for the performers.

Compared to other operas of this scale, there are few major roles in MANON LESCAUT besides the two lovers. Bass Brindley Sherratt brought a resonant bravado (and oily sheen) to Geronte de Ravoir, Manon's sugar daddy, while Massimo Cavaletti, as Manon's cousin, easily switched allegiance--from des Grieux to Geronte and back again--with his smooth baritone not breaking a sweat. The first voice to be heard in the opera is a tenor--not Alagna but Zach Borichevsky as Edmondo, and he was exciting in the small role. A couple of recent winners of the Met Council auditions also did well in small but notable parts: Mezzo Virginie Verrez (in 2015) stood out as one of the musician-performers of Act II, while bass-baritone Brandon Cedel (2013) was a mellifluous sergeant in Act III.

The real stars of the evening, however, were conductor Fabio Luisi and the Met orchestra, who gave a lush and thrusting account of the Puccini score; more than once, Luisi seemed to be helping the singers along. On opening night, Alagna gave special thanks to Joan Dorneman, the Met's prompter, who stands by to assist with lost lines.

It's interesting that the Prevost novel gives top billing to the male of the species--the writer, after all, called it the story of des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, and not the other way around. Actually, it's quite understandable: Des Grieux is the one who falls instantly in love with Manon, the one who searches out and finds her after she's left him, the one who holds her while she dies (in the "wasteland" of Louisiana, no less). Yes, Puccini may have named the opera for its heroine, and may have written her some wonderful music, but it's the tenor who supplies the point of view and moves it along. With his last-minute save, Alagna gave the Met the des Grieux it needed--just not necessarily the one the opera needed.


The Saturday, March 5 matinee performance will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries around the world.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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