Netrebko, Beczala, Szot, Pittsinger / Luisi
Laurent Pelly hit upon a kernel of truth in his production of Manon, new to the Met last month via London: her story is, in fact, one of attention and desire -- which in Prevost's original novel she cannot escape even in the distant New World. So this production highlights (as the early-season Don Giovanni did for that legend) the sea of Parisian men in which its heroine swims, and it's not quite wrong to do so. But this stark choice, like the update from Prevost's time to Massenet's, quite squashes the appeal of the actual opera -- that is, its charm.
It's not just the men themselves -- clad, as they might have been in Massenet's late 19th century, uniformly in black and white, drifting in civilizedly threatening bands across and around the lovers' stage in the initial acts -- but the similarly stripped-down decor around them. Colors and frills are largely absent, the settings rendered in shades of white and not-quite-offensively geometrical shapes that suggest modern materials and construction... The road to Le Havre might well be a concrete boardwalk.
Pelly wishes, according to last month's program interview, to make some point about the harsh and inflexible sexual mores and perspectives of Massenet's late 19th century, but this physical expression reminds us of that era's full spectrum of proto-modern features. While the full degree of starkness represented by the production is more than a bit stylized, it reminds us that the engineered world we associate with 20th century "modernity" had its roots in the previous era -- industrialization, urbanization, quick technological advance and the attendant transformation of everything from war to social mores and organization and characteristic conflicts. Nor is this incompatible with Manon's story, which turns on desire as compulsion, a familiar modern/modernist trope -- also the core of the opera's more recognizably proto-modern contemporary Carmen.
But it's not Massenet's opera that looks forward -- it's Puccini's Manon Lescaut, perhaps that composer's most profound piece of dramaturgy. This slightly later Italian take is hyper-focused on the dynamics of jealousy, desire, and compulsion -- even disposing of the civilizational context altogether for a much starker ending than its predecessor's. Massenet went the other way.
For the characteristic European 19th century reaction to the proto-modern life that was growing explosively within it was not celebration but denial, opposition, flight -- first within, with the early Romantic discovery of subjectivity, and then to more and more elaborately civilized worlds, real and imagined. And so Manon Lescaut, a creature of the early 18th century (written long before the Revolution was even a rumor), is resurrected by Massenet in the 19th to give him access to her era. Her Paris is not Haussmann's rationalization but the previous medieval-derived scramble; her social milieu is not the monochrome by which, in Massenet's day, besieged conventionality clothed itself in the style of its new and apparently implacable rival, but the riotous color of its own past glory and full decadent confidence -- as cruel as any age, but more arbitrarily than organizedly so.
This context reveals Manon's character as clearly as any of her actions. She does not particularly insist, nor follow any straight compulsive line, but meanders between private love and the well-elaborated worldly pleasures of her day. Manon thus remains amorally charming, the reminder of and best face on the desirability of those past times' convoluted luxuries. Transplant her to modernity and she becomes, well, Lulu: with pleasures no longer for straightforward enjoyment but compulsory, Berg's (anti)heroine meanders a similar route between street, luxury, gambling den, imprisonment, and ruin no longer able to express or perhaps even remember in her straighter, more sinister world's terms exactly what it is she gets from it all.
Pelly and his designers erase the curlicues and diversions from Manon's onstage existence and unfortunately much of her story's flavor thereby, but perhaps they were simply building the proper frame for their star. Anna Netrebko starts off well -- giving obvious care to play innocent in the show's first act -- but she is subsequently more gross than delicate, choosing (as has been her norm for at least a decade) force over charm at every turn. It would be more tolerable, I think, if this imbalance were not characteristic of the Gelb era and the leading ladies he has chosen to promote: with Netrebko, Damrau, (formerly) Gheorghiu, and Poplavskaya, bludgeoning seriousness has been up and smiling charm way down, a feature most previously noticeable this season in Faust.
The excellent characterizations of David Pittsinger, Paulo Szot, the bit players, conductor Fabio Luisi, and the orchestra did fill in much that the show otherwise omitted. Tenor Piotr Beczala sang well enough, though without the abandon and fire heard in the last great Met Manon -- 2005, with Fleming and Marcelo Alvarez.