(Puccini, NY Met, 5 March, 2016)
TVC had not seen this early Puccini but was pleasantly surprised. It’s a Puccini, of course, so a rural, low-born tart will get uppity and be handed a disproportionate retribution as her fate, but whilst the story is the messy result of being written by a committee, it is uncomplicated (albeit piecemeal), heartfelt and in the end, very moving. There are flat bits – the café twittering at the beginning reminds one of the rubbish music theatre Valli is forced to do in The Third Man – but the music shows the composer’s great talent and there are numerous Wagnerian flourishes. The intermezzo is fine, and unusually sensitive for our Jack, bookmarking the division between the sensual hijinks of the first two acts and the relentless misery, born of desperate passion, to come. The Met orchestra was impeccable under Fabio Luisi (who was interviewed during one of the many pointless intermission pieces, failing utterly to explain the score or his wonderful work conducting it).
We have a vague memory of seeing, a while ago, a Kristine Opolais rehearsal for Manon with a glum Jonas Kaufman hovering in the background. Maybe that was merely a vision in a dream? As Merlin would say, a dream to some…a nightmare to others. The heralded casting of Kaufman as Chevalier Des Grieux was stifled when the tenor withdrew shortly before the run, due to ill health. It is not his debut at this sort of thing: as Martin Bernheimer commented acidly, Kaufman “seems to be available this season for a limited number of disappearances.”
It was certainly a debut for Roberto Alagna, (the stout and accomplished Frenchman with the Italian-sounding name) who stepped into the breach, although he had rehearsed the role for a production in 2006 that was ultimately cancelled. We are pleased to report that he was great, as was Opolais as a glamorous, passionate and doomed Manon. OK, she’s from Riga, but nobody’s perfect. Baritone Brindley Sherratt was oily and nasty as the old, rich, lewd collaborateur, Geronte, and Massimo Cavalletti, in the highly ambiguous and unfocused role of Manon’s brother (part pimp, part chancer, part hero) was likeable and strong of voice.
The film is typical of the great work in the Met series as directed by Gary Halvorson, perhaps on this occasion the camera being a tad too restless. And we liked, (for once!), at least for the most part, the staging, by Richard Eyre. Sir Richard was interviewed during the break, sheltering within an oversized corduroy jacket, giving forth an explanation that he set the piece in German-occupied WWII France because (1) eighteenth century garb wears the characters rather than the reverse; (2) Nazi-occupied France emphasises the opera’s moral ambiguity, and (3) he wanted a 1940s film noir feel.
We don’t really follow his first reason and as for the second, we don’t detect much ambiguity about the Nazis. There is a touch of ’40s melodrama about Manon – Opolais channelled Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck and at times, Marilyn Monroe, with Alagna a doughty John Garfield – but whilst the scene at Amiens with its massive steps, art nouveau hotel and choo-choo train, and Act III’s prison ship and dock chock full of prostitutes, worked well, we were less enthralled by Manon’s bedchamber with its yellow-brick-road mountain of steps and lascivious faux bas-relief columns. The Nazi soldiers added approximately nil throughout. And the final heart-rending scene in the wilderness was subverted by setting it among what appeared to be the ruins of the old Sir Donald Bradman Stand at Adelaide Oval. We half expected to see the severed head of the Statue of Liberty among the broken masonry – a kind of Planet of the Apes, post-Katrina death-scape. But the singing and sheer power of the closing scenario overcame such missteps.