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March 29, 2012 6:06 pm
Manon, written in 1884, used to be a poignant example of gently perfumed romanticism – a warm fusion of sentiment and charm, sensuality and delicacy, pain and remorse. It culminated in comfortable tragedy, replete with nostalgic images of France in the early 18th century. It wasn’t like that on Monday.
Laurent Pelly’s production (imported from Covent Garden and shared with Milan and Toulouse) imposes silly modernist perspectives at every misguided turn. The period is updated to the 1880s, sometimes beyond. Chantal Thomas’s skeletal sets remain grim and grey, without relief. Pelly’s regimental costumes adhere to black or white, though the modestly immoral heroine (not so modest here) manages to model a crimson evening gown in the gambling scene. The movement patterns teeter between awkward stylisation and clumsy abstraction. Lionel Hoche’s divertissement dancers resemble fugitives from a provincial Swan Lake. It is all very sad, very severe and, most crucial, very cold.
The obvious raison d’être for the project must be Anna Netrebko, the much ballyhooed diva undertaking the would-be seductive title-role. She is, without question, a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice (never mind the weak trill and the inexact top tones). She works diligently, always affirming dedication to the more-is-more theory of theatrical characterisation. Her Manon emerges, in turn, a gawky waif, a tough cookie, a flouncy vamp and a pallid victim. She exudes both self-confidence and self-indulgence just when one most wants a trace of innocence and a semblance of pathos.
Piotr Beczala, her dashing Chevalier des Grieux, sings tastefully, sensitively and sweetly at low dynamic levels, when audible. Unfortunately, he tends to force his slender tenor sharp under pressure. Paolo Szot blusters busily as lusty Lescaut. David Pittsinger’s sympathetic Des Grieux père lacks basso gravitas. Christophe Mortagne seems to relish making nasty Guillot a dirty-old-man caricature.
Fabio Luisi, the conductor, keeps the tempos brisk, the textures clear and the emotions taut. Such is his wont. Still, beginning at 7:30 and ending at 11:30, this was a long night at the opera. Poor Massenet.
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