Mattila was replaced in the title part by Maria Gavrilova, who made her house debut replacing an ill Racette in Butterfly last season. That subsitution seems to have been a success, but this one mostly highlighted the importance of Mattila's contribution. Gavrilova, a Russian soprano from the Bolshoi, gave a more conventional account of the title part, disappearing into Puccini's melodic line and Manon's stylized behavior while relying vocal warmth to make her effect. (Though the main body of her voice is undistinguished as Met sopranos go, Gavrilova's high notes soar out forcefully as if from a larger, more solid instrument.) This worked well enough moment to moment, but by the end of the piece one began to wonder about all those unfair knocks on the piece and its libretto. For Puccini doesn't offer a straightforward narrative -- it's more like a variation form -- and so if a particular Manon isn't thoroughly fascinating, she can't rely on the forward force of story to guide audience interest. This Manon barely seemed to register the rich and poor potential admirers around her: how then were we (the audience) supposed to be transfixed, ready to follow her into the perdition of Act IV? It's a disjointed, insignificant work if we aren't.
One might make the same basic complaint of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, star of the Met's new Peter Grimes staging (seen in its debut last Thursday): though using a broader, more refined expressive vocabulary of both body and voice, he too cannot quite make the stage his own. He is not, of course, called to in quite the same way: Britten and his librettist put Grimes in a story as taut-knit as the community he lives among, ensuring the show holds together. Grimes has thereby famously flourished in a variety of interpretations. But more: Grimes' significance is not, as Manon's, merely enacted and considered, but actually explained by the story and music. We hear it in the sea's outbursts, most strikingly in the storm interlude after Grimes' argument with Balstrode and dream of Ellen's harbour. It's his emotions that roil and seethe, but we hear the release and climax of this from the sea. Why not? -- the prior act has begun connecting them in text. Ned states: "Man invented morals, but tides have none", and so we see the Borough community as the huddled moral counterpoint to that pitiless, destructive sea with which they must coexist. But Grimes lives apart, in a clifftop hut by the sea: unafraid of storm, heedless of the Sabbath, inseparably attached by visions and ambition. (Balstrode the former captain understands, but he has retired, chosen the land and its comforts in a way Grimes cannot.)
So perhaps remembering that the first protagonists of story were divine, Britten casts Grimes not merely as put-upon outcast but as a sea god of sorts. Mortals entangled with him are, as one might expect, eventually wrecked: most obviously his final apprentice John, who falls to his death from the flood-eroded cliff. Grimes himself sinks into the sea as the opera ends with another chorus on the tide.
Griffey is lyrical, agonized, and even at times strange, but it is this elemental aspect of Grimes that he misses. Grimes is, in a very real sense, the storm and tide that ever threaten to engulf the Borough, and Griffey never evokes that scale of being. (Insert obligatory Jon Vickers reference here.) Of course he's not helped by John Doyle's near-empty production, which strips out not only all of the decor but any trace of the sea -- Grimes' fishing outfit is left, but not much else. (Gian Carlo Menotti's production of Manon Lescaut, on the other hand -- though his name has been weirdly stripped from the credits -- provides Desmond Heeley's handsome, evocative, but not suffocating "realistic" sets.) Working more with space -- set designer Scott Pask's bare dark walls shift to and fro, back and forth -- than detail is fine in theory, but the contrast between Borough coziness and Grimes' lot disappears here too. (For all the director's pre-production talk of understanding the community dynamic, he seems to have had little idea what to do with the Borough and its scenes.) The last time the Met offered something so bare, the audience at least got a big rock to look at... and didn't have to sit through a final tableau so utterly and strikingly stupid that several reviewers seemed to prefer pretending it didn't happen, perhaps under the (apparently correct) theory that Gelb would soon axe the thing.
But elemental grandeur does come out full force from the orchestra. Donald Runnicles, who seemed happy to press ever forward through Manon Lescaut, ever-clearly draws beautiful and terrible sounds from the pit in Grimes. He is the star the show needs.
I should mention that Marcello Giordani did sing in the last Manon Lescaut, and had maybe his best night of the season. A good sign, I hope, going into this month's much-anticipated Ernani.
[UPDATE (3/5): Tommasini's review, which I couldn't find offhand earlier, also ignores the final set -- though he spends much time discussing the rest of the physical production.]
[UPDATE 2 (3/5): Maury describes the now-excised spectacle.]