The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Met in HD: Manon (Massenet) - in new chilly updated perspective. Anna Netrebko. Fabio Luisi. Laurent Pelly. 07.4.12

Wrapping up Trebs trilogy of reviews for 2011-2012 has appeared a new Laurent Pelly production of Massenet’s Manon at the Met. Anna Netrebko may be familiar as Manon to dvd collectors from Berlin in production by Vincent Paterson, in which Manon in 1950’s milieu - all as though adopting starring role in her own story before cameras - or some kind of fantasy along these lines. Concept sounds Fellini-esque, but setting up plush atmosphere much its own likely suiting Jules Massenet’s music very well.

That a drier approach can work, can be applied with a frequently deft touch, demonstrates itself very well, in still one of David McVicar’s best productions, filmed in Barcelona (also seen in Houston in 2003, starring Elisabeth Futral) The new Pelly production, while competent, fell short of communicating such ability, beyond animated interaction especially among lesser personae – Guillot, Lescaut, de Bretigny, three Andrews or Lennon sister prototypes – Poussette, Javotte, Rosette. (Das Rheingold predates Manon by about twenty years).

Anna Netrebko both looks and sounds slightly heavier now than when she got filmed as Anna Bolena from Vienna a year ago. The voice shows a little wear and tear from further onslaught of Anna Bolena runs at the Met and run as Donna Anna in Milan. The promise of Netrebko delving deeper into heavier repertoire seemingly looms before us – Lohengrin Elsa for Dresden in 2015 and Norma at Convent Garden soon thereafter.

Were not Anna Bolena and Donn’Anna heavy enough? Fortunately doing these parts did not quite derail Netrebko’s return to lighter fare with Manon. Mostly to sensitive ears would it have been clear what toll previous forays this season have taken. Anna is certainly not quite long in the tooth for singing or playing the part of Manon, albeit that her having developed rounder figure physically might have made it seem quite so.
Diction and tone tended to a certain prevailing thickness, but handling of most acuti free, open and light (apart from two or several approached slightly from below).

For opening scene Netrebko played just mildly distraught (especially at point of ‘Voyons, Manon – sad song soon before she meets a just entering Des Grieux), but also with eyes fully open for bewildering world – looking thus far as though all an intimidating military fortress – at Amiens - to have now encompassed her. Opening ‘get-to-know-Manon’ aria, though slightly thick sounding, she characterized well. Farewell to table during Act Two was hauntingly poignant, but in midst of mildly disconcertingly losing engagement with Des Grieux before this scene wrapped up. Netrebko then entered the Cours-la-Reine in sumptuous dress, looking, sounding very well the Russian empress as Manon with, affecting her Gavotte, particular coolness, imperious manner to match; perhaps even Catherine the Great once entertained similar fantasies.

Vulgarly carried out seduction scene at St. Sulpice - more on this momentarily – introduced an arch, quasi-Straussian accent into this, in effect catching one off-guard. Musical and dramatic confidence however returned for final two scenes – at casino with singing and acting in grand style, then engrossing involvement for the final scene. For Netrebko in lighter voice and persona we have from five years ago the DGG Berlin dvd.

Piotr Beczala made an ever ardent, vocally fulsome Des Grieux, matching Netrebko in strength for climactic meeting places during the gambling casino scene. Slavic tone, diction tended to enhance considerable languor vocally, tonally, especially standing next to Netrebko. Engagement with recitative, spoken dialogue was very convincing, as was a sung on the breath ‘La Reve’ during Act Two. Beczala later negated positive effect of singing softly, deftly shaping start to ‘Ah fuyez, douce image” by unpleasant forcing toward projecting full-out by conclusion thereof. Vittorio Grigolo in London opposite Netrebko there got cited too for, alongside his ardent, handsome demeanor, some most forceful vocalism there too. Recovery for seduction scene, quite overheated passion encompassing it, was nearly complete, heartfelt engagement for final scene also.

Gravitas for first half of the St. Sulpice scene, for expressing concern right before (and then moral opprobrium later) David Pittsinger as Comte Des Grieux supplied in full, with fine tonal roundness, depth, fine acting, and convincing diction. Especially in regards to Des Grieux fils (Beczala), his part in all this, Pittsinger for a spell provided fine relief from the detached feel, distancing chill of Laurent Pelly’s production.

Even with some Slavic ripeness to match two others here, Paulo Szot made a nimble, savvy case vocally, dramatically for the ever shrewd, enterprising Lescaut. Bradley Garvin brought fine voice, tall confident charm, swagger to the mostly thankless role of de Bretigny. Christophe Mortagne, also Guillot at Convent Garden two years ago, had the crusty look, though with fine diction, vocal gruffness to unveil potential menace as Guillot. It must be for the wealth and riches of this dandy that he can offer, promise ladies anywhere nearby that any might ever come close. Mortagne’s looked, sounded slightly short on ability to close the sale, so to speak. Thoroughly vivacious charm of the ladies’ trio (Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jennifer Black, Ginger Costa-Jackson) helped relieve the dreary look of much about, including that of a very droll Guillot. (The recently deceased Philip Langridge had originally been planned upon to sing Guillot for Royal Opera),

One London critic expressed wariness as to how the wider Met stage might fit Pelly’s production. Much sensation of void, as limned by chain-link fence, multiple ramps for the Cours-la-Reine flattened out, with sets by Chantal Thomas, what charm suggested thereof. Hotel de la Transylvanie looked especially wonky, when it emptied of all people except for several leads, making it obvious how much its shell construction resembled, its dull green painted walls, the basement of a research lab building. A large round ball, perched along rear crossing balcony put one in mind of NBA playoffs only weeks ahead.

Alternating ramps, (metal) stairwells, imposing walls perhaps provided some form of symbolism – cluttered to clotted psyches of the corrupt demi-monde with action here having been updated to time Manon was composed and/or soon thereafter. Seeing the apartment for Act Two as cramped compartment up several metallic staircases proved quite disorienting. Gray, streetlight illuminated Le Havre for the final scene suggested to one critic at Convent Garden a pulling down of any veil of rose or pink coloring to have illusively gilded earlier scenes. I somehow missed noticing any similar gilding to have transpired at the Met. Still, the lighting (Joel Adan) proved evocative for Le Havre - of more searing tragedy, as acted out at the Met, than Massenet may have reckoned.

Psychological metaphor of this Manon finds a parallel in Pelly’s production of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. Using a rotating stage, metaphor employed for this Pelleas saturated thereof already worked more fluidly therein than for Manon. More comedy likely informed the Convent Garden stage, within its moderately more intimate space. Some good comedic touches fortunately still surfaced at the Met.

If nothing else, Massenet’s music provides epicurean cover for what seedy aspects of the story and of what world gets portrayed this way. Stripping action, feel of this piece of its well-rounded corners, of luxuriating within comes with its risks. Updating the action can further help infuse this music of an at least fleeting nostalgia for perhaps better world left behind, while taking care not to overly sentimentalize action or scenario involved. Numerous ways exist to expose the hollowness at the core of engaging in such nostalgia – and certainly hinted at here. There is still further Pelly could go in replacing much cold abstraction with a little more intimacy, simplicity. Such again may have been a little better the case in London. Smaller space in London likely made more of surreptitious lurking about, voyeurism perhaps of numerous extras on stage various times – supporting cast also well involved.

Incidence during Act Three became most suspect. More camp than Massenet was formally attired male chorus line ogling Manon during her Gavotte, before stiffly played following neo-Baroque written ballet sequence. Intermezzo blog refers to ‘rapacious’ descent by these men upon, metaphorical devouring of ballerinas on stage as though “fluffy white chicks.” Similar imagery quickly occurred to me as well. Light elegance of touch to what earlier the Cours-la-Reine (promenade) scene contains one furtively sought in vain, for better than minimal fulfillment thereof.

Set-up of simple chairs in rows on stage behind down curtain felt apropos for St. Sulpice, such activity could make the case for being integral to succeeding action here. Gossip among older women fawning over their new priest played itself out very nicely. Bed to left front corner was simple, but still It was a bed. Mariandel noticing conspicuously large bed at dingy inn to help along tryst Baron Ochs has set up in Strauss could not avoid coming to mind. Manon lifting up her dress for Des Grieux and audience to see – supposedly compelling him to succumb to her wiles turned anything sublime here to just vulgar and absurd. The two lovebirds then went at it further toward excessively explaining matters. Charm, allure to seduction scene, also to relieve frequently noticed slightly contrived feel to Des Grieux’s ‘Ah fuyez” all went for naught. Grandiosity to closing Fourth Act ensemble sequences at the Hotel de la Transylvanie very well restored focus to proceedings – well maintained for engrossing final scene.

Fabio Luisi conducted, amidst busy schedule also involving forays into Wagner. At obvious junctures he provided fine lift, sense of esprit Massenet’s score, its celebration of life and of Paris exudes. Luisi’s impetus seemed more involved with the big cantabile line, where it shows up. In an understated way, somewhat lumbering about at times, Luisi’s feel for Massenet was broad, partly seeking to achieve fine grandeur that where obviously necessary he and his Met forces did. Ample support for his singers and reasonable sense of proportions was hardly ever in doubt. Intimacy, febrile anxiety for Le Havre fully won his sympathy.

More flexible hand toward fully engaging with lightness Massenet percolates forth was all one missed. A suffusing mood of nostalgia however did seem to form lightly applied cowl over this music. Equally contributing to flatness overall, at the Met, was this still relatively new production. One left attending this not so empty-handed, as just feeling loosely alienated, distractible.

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