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The Met’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, directed by Richard Eyre, takes place in a meticulously, even extravagantly realized World War II France, with sidewalk cafes and lots of Nazis. The precision of the staging is emphasized by a projection that appears before the first act telling us we are in “Amiens, 1941.” This approach is, I’m sorry to say, extremely typical for the Met’s current artistic program: take an opera, transpose it onto another time in history (usually recent, but not too recent), and re-create the details as if it were a costume-drama movie (or maybe, in this case, a film noir). Let me say, in case I forget to later, that many of the details are very nice: the hats and boas; the uniforms; a menacing knot of men in dark suits sitting around a table; two women gossiping upstage in threadbare skirts and hose.
But there are two related problems. First, little is done to integrate the subject matter of the opera into its new period, so it just feels as if it’s been plunked down in a different historical era by a time machine with the controls set to random. Manon Lescaut, based on the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel, is the story of a beautiful girl and an idealistic young man, the Chevalier des Grieux, who falls desperately in love with her. He remains loyal even as she leaves him for older men who satisfy her unselfconscious taste for luxury and comfort. In the end Manon is condemned for her sexual crimes and sent to Louisiana as a convict, where she dies in the arms of des Grieux, who’s followed her there.
I’m all for updating the setting of an opera from the 18 thcentury to the 20th, but updating alone is not enough. This new production at the Met may be set during World War II but it never stops to ask, what do we get out of setting this story during World War II? Manon’s brother (sung by Massimo Cavalletti) seems like some kind of Gendarme collaborator, but nothing is made of it. Her older lover Geronte (sung by Brindley Sherratt) is also involved with the Nazis, but are we meant to think that her true love, des Grieux (the tenor Roberto Alagna), is therefore a resistance fighter? No clue. Is Manon herself meant to be seen as a collaborator, sleeping with the enemy in exchange for trinkets? An interesting thought, but nothing is done with it. I recalled the terrifying images of French women who had slept with Germans having their hair shorn as an act of public humiliation after the War, but we don’t get anything like that in the staging – only a confusing final scene in which, instead of going to America, Manon and des Grieux wander through the postwar ruins of a French city. Not necessarily a bad idea, but more could’ve been done with it. What has become of the Old World-Order? What is Manon’s relation to the New? And why do the lovers still seem to be in France if, in the previous scene, Manon was shown getting on a ship?
The second problem, more considerable than the first, is that in the production’s commitment to a certain historical realism, the unavoidably unrealistic aspects of the opera seem ridiculous. Eyre does a fine job distributing the chorus in the first act across his imagined train-station square in Amiens (Rob Howell’s set, an immense amphitheater that melds into a crumbling hôtel particulier, is impressive and versatile). But when the choristers suddenly jump up from their seats and crowd to chide the old Geronte, it feels completely forced. So too when the lovers are left to hash out their love with the usual massive gestures. Not that I have a problem with massive gestures. It’s just that an opera production must anticipate the need for such things, and build in a commensurately extreme vocabulary of gesture from the very beginning. It doesn’t really matter in opera if you are historically consistent – much better to be consistent in terms of style and ambience, even if that means being consistently outrageous or strange.
Musically the performance was better. Roberto Alagna acquitted himself admirably as des Grieux in his last-minute replacement of Jonas Kaufmann. Conductor Fabio Luisi brought down the house with the Met orchestra’s rendition of the sensuous orchestral intermezzo before Act 3. Zach Borichevsky sounded sweet as des Grieux’s buddy Edmondo. And Kristine Opolais was a dramatic Manon, even if her voice was occasionally lost in the hugeness of the Met’s house. But the music suffered because of the drama. It felt polished but pro forma, too disconnected from the stage to have an emotional impact.
The exception was Act 2, set in Manon’s boudoir when she’s with rich old Geronte in his Parisian palace. Here Eyre and his design team allowed themselves to get weird. Opera directors take note: weird works! Manon is wearing an outrageous kimono and changes into an equally outrageous sequined number. She is being perfumed and made up into a doll. For some reason the triumphal column of the Place Vendôme is protruding through her room. Guests are announced, and a bizarre morning audience takes place, in which Nazis and cardinals gather to watch Manon dance and sing. A bad madrigal is performed by pompously coiffed singers, and it’s followed by a lascivious dance lesson. There is a pervasive and uneasy feeling of conceit and flattery.
Such uncanny textures provide the right context for Puccini’s excess. Kristine Opolais opened up magnificently into her lonesome second-act aria “In quelle trine morbide.” And the hysterics of her later second-act duet with Alagna seemed urgent, the only possible escape from this stifling world. This scene also brought the evening’s only moment of real character development. The hangers-on rain flattery on Manon’s singing and dancing. “Do not flatter me, or I’ll never be good,” she replies, with just the dimmest awareness of the illusions that surround her. This is the tragedy of Manon in a nutshell: she’s an amateur who, because of her natural beauty and charm, everyone treats like a professional. She is not Violetta Valéry of Traviata, the worldly courtesan who knows what she’s getting into when it comes to love and scandal, whose pathos consists in her knowledge that the pain is coming but acting her part anyway. Manon never knows the pain is coming, but everyone believes she’s hardened against it, and so they inflict it upon her mercilessly.
Manon Lescaut continues at the Metropolitan Opera (30 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through March 11.