By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — Manon Lescaut served as workshop for Puccini’s later operas. And what a workshop it was, followed at four-year intervals by three celebrated domestic dramas: La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Manon Lescaut is heard less often than these, but Puccini never needed to worry about that, having made such good use of his practice time.
Richard Eyre’s new production of Manon Lescaut at the Metropolitan Opera, which opened Feb. 12 and runs through March 11, offers an artistic concept that wasn’t sustained through the piece, and displayed a few surprises along the way.
The best of those surprises was the precipitous role debut of tenor Roberto Alagna as the Chevalier des Grieux, stepping in for Jonas Kaufmann, who withdrew because of illness. Amazingly, this is the fourth last-minute bailout Alagna has performed at the Met in his career. He deserved the printed program insert praising his “ongoing heroics.”
Skipping his last scheduled appearance as Canio in I Pagliacci (at General Manager Peter Gelb’s urging), Alagna crammed for des Grieux and dominated the role. It’s in his Fach — the soaring phrases, the belted high notes, the caressed fermata; it calls to mind the fact that this role was one of Caruso’s. Once Alagna is more at ease with the staging, he can take this one to the bank.
Puccini wasn’t the first composer to be drawn to Abbé Prévost’s haunting French novel about the young Manon, whose beauty makes her a precious commodity to be showered with favors but given no respect. Ten years earlier, Massenet had set the story in his own Manon. His more popular version has a French libretto rather than Puccini’s Italian, and his operatic writing is subtler.
Eyre’s production is set in France — nothing is a given at the Met these days — but strangely, it’s the 1940s, which means occupied France. The military was a big presence (heartily choral as well), with soldiers in brown who looked like the Gestapo. In the opening act, a teeming plaza with a huge rear staircase is where the committed bachelor des Grieux spots Manon as she awaits her guardian cousin. The set has the look of the town square of Carmen (in which Eyre directed Alagna in 2014). Manon introduces herself to the smitten des Grieux in an aria foreshadowing Mimi’s in La Boheme.
Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, who has sung the title role at Covent Garden, played the young temptress whose brother (baritone Massimo Cavaletti) is packing her off to a convent. He sees that they might fare better if he could pawn her off on Geronte (capably sung by English bass Brindley Sherratt), a wealthy geezer who can keep her in luxury. Manon has fallen for des Grieux, but — as often happens in this opera — men, and her own desire for the finer things in life, lead her astray.
Designer Rob Howell’s cold, opulent interior for Geronte’s house has white-and-gold furniture in towering gray spaces, and more steep lighted stairs. Entertainment — dancing and madrigals — was lighted in red from the side. (Peter Mumford’s nuanced lighting could be gentle or shocking.) Manon, attired in 1940’s movie-star couture, means to escape with des Grieux but is caught by Geronte, who calls the police while she delays to pack jewels.
Led away humiliated, up the giant staircase, she is flung onto a ship with prostitutes bound for Louisiana in the New World, even if it was no longer new by World War II. Oops. (The stereotypical French tarts on the ship made a witty pantomime.) Although Massenet’s Manon dies on the pier without boarding the ship, Puccini’s is forced onto it, and des Grieux joins the crew to be with her.
The couple ends up in a fatal “vast plain,” distractedly depicted by some kind of pointy rocks, tall windows, and ruined walls (an indoor desert in suburban New Orleans?). Manon, whose character has deepened and matured, dies alone, declaring her love for des Grieux, who has gone to seek water.
Men are everywhere in this opera: except for the mixed chorus in the square, Manon is the only woman. Her last aria, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” which she sang alone on the stage, was apparently the one the hard-working Opolais came to sing. Her generic sound was as good as I’ve heard it. She did say in a radio interview that she’s “an actress at heart”; she might consider the theater.
Fabio Luisi, who conducted, knows and feels this repertory, and he relaxed into Puccini’s signature unison orchestral support for the melodic line. The orchestra excelled in a deceptively serene intermezzo before the third act, which included the prow of a ship in port at night, with lamppost and ambling sentry.
Among the men, it was Alagna’s night. His “rescue” performance paid off for himself and the production. That surprise was a nice one.
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Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.