Massenet’s Manon

I caught the Metropolitan Opera’s streaming of Massenet’s Manon Lescaut on Wednesday. It’s a long, and at times, glacially moving opera – 4 hours long, with plenty of (in my opinion) redundant “grand opera”-like scenes, but the music more than makes up for it.

Essentially, Massenet’s Manon (so defined because Puccini wrote an opera by the same name and plot in 1893, just 9 years after Massenet’s) is a dressed up La Traviata, with a lengthier plot, more love interests, and more complicated characters. Where one easily sympathizes  with Traviata’s heroine, Violetta, it’s much harder to empathize with the ultimate fall of the willful and materialistic and Manon.

I think it’s hard to beat the on-stage charisma and intensity of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon (hopefully they’ll sing together again one day, and soon), but it was still thrilling to watch Netrebko and tenor Piotr Beczala perform together. They lent a realism to their earnest love for each other, looking into each other’s eyes as they sang their love arias (too often, singers without chemistry just stare off into the distance when they’re supposedly singing about how passionately in love they are with the other person… I believe staged opera shouldn’t just be about the music, but the acting is important too… otherwise, I could easily just stay home and listen to the radio broadcasts, or concert performances). Beczala’s performance of “En fermant les yuex” was easily the most stirring and beautifully sung aria of the evening; gorgeous pianissimos! I also particularly enjoyed bass-baritone David Pittsinger’s singing (he played the senior de Grieux); he had a strong and robust voice and lent much gravitas to his role.

The staging itself was uneven. I liked the skeleton of the loft used in Act II, and thought that the askew floors and miniature houses and street lamps in the background brilliant for evoking scale and distance in the final act. I was less impressed with the scene in Act 3 however, which is set on the promenade of the Cours-la-Reine in Paris. That set was dominated by zig-zag ramps that the singers and choruses have to clumsily navigate around. That was also the scene I thought could have been cut much shorter. Heh.

Overall though, it was a most enjoyable opera; the plot’s dumb (but I think the updated plot by Puccini is even more ludicrous) but the music is simply sublime. Bought the Netrebko-Villazon performance on DVD; excited to watch it and compare!

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