Met in HD: A noirish, beautifully sung ‘Manon Lescaut’

Puccini’s first hit is radiant with fine singing, courtesy of Metropolitan Opera stars Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna. Encore performance Wednesday evening, March 9, 2016.

Kristine Opolais is a glamorous Manon Lescaut in the Met in HD's production of Puccini's opera. (Photo credit: Kristian Schuller)

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2016 – The Met in HD series brought another memorable success to the silver screen this Saturday past with a stirring and emotional production of Puccini’s first real hit opera, “Manon Lescaut.”

Starring glamorous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and surprise last-minute-substitute tenor Roberto Alagna, brought passion and realism to Puccini’s tragic opera despite the well-known defects in its book.

Mr. Alagna was persuaded to undertake the role of the opera’s romantic male lead on extraordinarily short notice when famed tenor Jonas Kaufmann suddenly decided to drop out of this Met production claiming illness (again) even though the production had been specially designed for him.

Live opera, however, is full of surprises. While Mr. Alagna had never sung the role of Des Grieux before in his long career, he gamely took up the challenge, working ‘round the clock for the better part of two weeks to first learn and then polish the role. If you hadn’t been aware of this very operatic backstory before you saw Saturday’s live simulcast production, you’d have never suspected that Mr. Alagna had never sung this part before.

Premiered in Turin in 1893, “Manon Lescaut” is based on Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel entitled “L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut”—roughly, “The tale of the noble des Grieux and Manon Lescaut.” Puccini’s opera simplifies the plotline somewhat, transforming des Grieux into a poor student and augmenting the role of the villain, Geronte di Revoir.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna star in the Met's "Manon Lescaut." (Photo credit: Ken Howard)
Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna star in the Met’s “Manon Lescaut.” (Photo credit: Ken Howard)

Not long after the opera opens, des Grieux is immediately smitten when he catches a glimpse of Manon Lescaut, a young woman being escorted to a convent by her ne’er-do-well brother, Lescaut. Lescaut instead essentially sells his sister to Geronte, a lecherous older man who also serves as a high government official. But the ardent des Grieux whisks her off under cover of darkness and they find their way to Paris.

Unfortunately, the impoverished des Grieux eventually loses Manon to Geronte, as he can’t afford her the lifestyle she desires. However, when Manon again meets up with des Grieux, courtesy of a somewhat remorseful Lescaut, the pair try to flee once again. But Manon is arrested by the furious Geronte, who imprisons and exiles her to the then-French colony of Louisiana. There, she—and des Grieux, who has managed to accompany her—try to escape again into the wilderness, with fatal consequences for Manon.

The book for this opera is a bit wobbly—Massenet’s 1884 “Manon,” also based on the original, tells a much richer and more complex story closer to the original. But it is here in “Manon Lescaut” that the opera-loving public first fell in love with the lushly romantic and occasionally impressionistic music of Puccini—a love affair that continues to this day.

The sets of this new, noirish Met production are interestingly crisp and angular showing a fair bit of imagination. That’s particularly true in the closing acts, which create suggestions a transport ship and the shattered ruin of a bombed out city. Yet the dominant, relentless grayness of this production wears thin after a time.

The production itself has been transported by director Richard Eyre from the 1700s to a more contemporary France, circa 1941, when that country and its restive capital city, Paris, were under Nazi army occupation. To be honest, I tend not to like operatic “updates” very much. But this one proved to be rather effective in its way, substituting a troubled period closer to our own era for an earlier but also morally ambiguous time in 18th century French history.

The singing in this production was once again uncommonly good, something that’s been a hallmark of this season’s Met in HD operas, many of which have set new benchmarks for excellence.

In some ways, tenor Roberto Alagna turned out to be the unexpected hero of this production. After Mr. Kaufmann’s latest abdication, and, as we’ve already noted, on horrendously short notice, Mr. Alagna not only learned the lyrics and the music of this opera—and excelled at both in a beautifully clear voice that never showed any sign of strain.

He also entered fully into the uncertain yet ardent and loyal character of des Grieux, making the part his own. Even better, he ignited real chemistry with Ms. Opolais, and it was this palpable romantic bond that drove inexorably toward this opera’s final tragedy. His is the kind of almost melodramatic artistic heroism that keeps operas and their legends going strong, even into our own cynical century.

As for Kristine Opolais, this “Manon Lescaut” was a marvelous display of her considerable vocal and thespian skills. In one of the Met in HD’s intermission interviews, she claimed Marilyn Monroe as a model for her glamorous Manon, tossing her blonde locks for emphasis. And indeed, she was as glamorous in Puccini’s pivotal Act II as she was miserable and defeated in the finale, riding this opera’s wheel of fortune first into the stratosphere and then down to the depths of despair.

Vocally, she followed the same trajectory: uncertain in the first act, imperious and headstrong in the second, frightened in the third, and looking forward to death in the finale. In each act, she sang a different Manon, brilliantly depicting her character’s innermost feelings in the way she delivered each aria and each phrase.

Brindley Sherratt took his self-centered Geronte one step beyond into real vindictiveness and nastiness, something he said he fully intended to do during his own intermission interview. While Geronte is not a huge vocal part in this opera, it helps if the character remains in the minds of the audience as a constantly lurking threat, and the way Mr. Sherratt voiced and acted his role did precisely that.

Rounding out the opera’s major quartet, baritone Massimo Cavalletti was in fine voice Saturday and gave us an excellent interpretation of the amoral Lescaut, a character that’s not very well defined in this opera. Mr. Cavalletti read his character as impulsive, selfish, but not incapable of remorse, as he proved in the second and third acts, backing up his actions with a voice that remained steady but true until his despair took over in Act III.

The Met orchestra once again performed at the top of its game under the steady and skillful baton of Fabio Luisi. This Met in HD production encores Wednesday evening, and if you’re sorry you missed Saturday’s performance, here’s a fine chance to reclaim it.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Encore performance: As is nearly always the case, the Met also recorded Saturday’s simulcast of “Manon Lescaut” for rebroadcast to participating movies theaters this week. The date: Wednesday, March 9, 2016. The time: 6:30 p.m. in all time zones. (Check your local theater’s schedule just to make sure.) For tickets, contact your local theater, or visit Fathom Events via this link.

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