Fathom Events' Met's "Manon Lescaut": Desert Song?

Roberto Alagna & Kristine Opolais in Metropolitan Opera's "Manon Lescaut"
(photo: Ken Howard)

The Metropolitan Opera's recent mounting of Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut caused quite a stir. The controversial production is by Sir Richard Eyre, but more about this later. When the 1893 original version was first performed, it became Puccini's first successful work, even though it followed the well-received 1884 Manon by Massenet. First, a brief synopsis might help to illustrate how radical Eyre's concept of the work is.
Students, led by Edmondo (tenor Zach Borichevsky) are singing in the town square in Amiens and urge the brooding Des Grieux (tenor Roberto Alagna) to join them. He flirts with some of the town girls. A train (in this version) arrives, carrying Geronte (bass Brindley Sherratt), Lescaut (baritone Massimo Cavalletti) and his sister Manon (soprano Kristine Opolais). Struck by her beauty, Des Grieux approaches her, and they agree to meet later. Inside the inn Geronte and Lescaut discuss Manon's future, namely Geronte's taking her to Paris. Edmondo overhears them and warns Des Grieux, agreeing to help them to run away. Lescaut advises Geronte that his sister's love for the best things in life will bring her around before long. Manon proves him right by becoming Geronte's mistress in his Parisian palace, but soon becomes bored. When Des Grieux arrives at the palace, they are reconciled and found in an embrace by Geronte, who summons the police and denounces her for her immorality. (It's a sign of the times that only she, and not Geronte himself, is so accused). Before she can flee, she grabs her jewelry, a costly delay as the police arrive to arrest her for theft. Later, she is held in the barracks at the port of Le Havre, to be deported to America with a group of prostitutes. Bribing the jailor, Lescaut intends to free his sister, but the plan is thwarted, and she is led onto the ship. Des Grieux convinces the Captain to take him along as a deckhand. In the final scene, the lovers find themselves in a “wasteland” (the “deserts of Louisiana” in the original libretto by no fewer than five librettists, whose sense of geography was a mite off). Manon, weak, sends Des Grieux to find water and shelter. He returns, but too late, as she dies believing that time will cleanse her of any sin, and he is left with only memories of their all-too-brief time together.

The plot has more than a few lacunae. For example, when Des Grieux sings in the final act of their formerly happy existence, he's referencing a period between earlier acts, which we never get to see. But much could be forgiven when there is such lovely music performed so well. Alagna, stepping in last month for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann, has obviously had time to hone his skills by now, as his singing was superb. Borichevsky, Cavalletti and Sherratt were also in fine voice. But it was in the title role that Opolais truly triumphed, notably in her justly famous, heartbreaking aria “sola, perduta, abbandonata”. But it was the audience who was alone, lost and abandoned by the vision of Eyre. Updating the time frame to 1941, with Set Design by Rob Howell, Eyre added a menacing and inappropriate undertone to the tragic love story with omnipresent Nazis in occupied Paris. Worse, the final scene was altered here to be sung in a deconstructed recreation of the palace bedchamber seen in an earlier act. It was a wrongheaded vision from the start. At least the HD broadcast Host was the charming Deborah Voight, and the performance was Directed for the HD broadcast by Gary Halvorson. The score was energentically Conducted by Fabio Luisi. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus excelled as usual under the capable direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The Lighting Design was by Peter Mumford the and Costume Design was by Fotini Dimou.

Eyre's Production was distracting, bizarre and ultimately pointless. Against all odds, and largely thanks to the memorable performances, this Manon Lescaut survived nonetheless.

Encore presentation will be HD broadcast on Wednesday March 9th at 6:30pm at a theater near you.

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