Jules Massenet’s Manon is romantic and tragic, which is what one expects from an opera. The music is wonderful, the costumes are sumptuous and the sets are stark, indeed minimalist, so that the action and the music are foregrounded.
But what makes the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD production especially moving is the chemistry between the Met’s reigning diva, Anna Netrebko, who sings Manon, and tenor Piotr Beczala, as her first lover, the Chevalier des Grieux.
The two have sung together many times in other operas, among them Lucia di Lammamoor, and they come across as a team as organic as, say, Tracy and Hepburn or Bogart and Bacall.
So good are they together that when this country girl is seduced by the riches on offer and chooses the life of a high-society courtesan over Des Grieux’s dreams of marriage, it seems an almost inexplicable decision. And when the two reunite later in the opera, it appears completely natural — even if Des Grieux is by then a priest and the seduction happens in a church.
Beczala is superb throughout; he’s one of the best tenors around at the moment. Christophe Mortagne, as a nobleman who can’t keep his hands to himself, is very funny until he turns nasty — and he does nasty very well.
As for the phenomenon who is Netrebko, reviews overseas have mentioned her occasional problem with pitch; it was obvious only once or twice in this production, generally on quite high notes. Her voice has an almost smoky quality in a lower range. And her acting is first-rate. When she sings Adieu, notre petite table before abandoning Des Grieux — and she sings it softly and beautifully — one feels the wrench at her farewell to innocence.
The production was originally designed for Covent Garden, where it was sung in 2010. Director Laurent Pelly, who designed the costumes, moved the action from the early 18th century to the 1880s, perhaps because he preferred that era from a fashion point of view. Certainly Netrebka isn’t complaining — in an interval interview, she shows off the many gowns she wears in the performance and complains that she’ll have to take her curtain call in the rags she’s been costumed in for the final act.
A word about the sets — they are faintly abstract and stylised. In the first scene an inn that abuts a courtyard is a slab of grey cement, with windows cut through, so at moments of interest the inhabitants can poke their heads out and sing.
The room the lovers occupy in Paris is tiny, and cutaway, at the top of two flights of stairs.
The church is represented by rows of chairs. A fairground is a multi-level ramp.
“Elegant” is the word used by conductor Fabio Luisi for the singers. The word could well be applied to the production.
Manon is showing at Ster-Kinekor’s Cinema Nouveaus only until Friday, when the Met’s La Traviata, starring Natalie Dessay, starts its week-long run, wrapping up this season of the Met’s Live in HD series.