With courage, determination and a healthy measure of ambition, Roberto Alagna rescues the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Puccini’s "Manon Lescaut".
This production was thrown into crisis lwhen Jonas Kaufmann, the most sought-after tenor in opera, withdrew from the entire run because of an illness.
Hoping to line up a star tenor replacement as RENATO DES GRIEUX, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb turned to Alagna, who had never sung the role.
With just sixteen days to prepare a major Puccini part for an important production, Alagna, who had been appearing in "Pagliacci" at the Met, agreed to take it on.
Alagna had to have been nervous on opening night.
Alagna sounded a little leathery and tight at first.
He steadily warmed up to give an ardent, impassioned performance as RENATO DES GRIEUX, a breezy student in Amiens, popular among friends, flirtatious with the ladies.
But RENATO DES GRIEUX's life unravels after taking one look at the sensual Manon Lescaut, who arrives in town with her overbearing brother on her way to a convent.
Des Grieux falls for Manon uncontrollably.
As Manon, Opolais sounded as glamorous.
And this was another fine night for conductor Luisi, who coaxed plush, textured playing from the impressive Met Orchestra, while bringing refreshing restraint and lucid detail to Puccini’s often teeming score.
Alas, the pointlessly updated production by Riccardo Eyre, with oddly monumental sets by Rob Howell, is a major disappointment.
Loosely adapted from a short novel by Abbé Prévost, "La storia del cavaliere Des Grieux", "Manon Lescaut" was a breakthrough triumph for Puccini at its prima in Torino.
Puccini alienated a series of librettists as he kept demanding changes in the text trying to get it right.
Though the version Puccini settled on leaves holes in the story the thrust of the tale is emotionally compelling thanks to Puccini’s lyrically soaring music.
As Eyre has explained in interviews, he sees elements of 1940s "film noir" in the opera.
Manon could be a Barbara Stanwyck, say.
So Eyre's production, first presented at the Baden Baden Festival has hints of a shadowy, fatalistic 1940s film.
In keeping with that "noir" concept, Eyre updates the story to France during the Nazi occupation.
But there is no discernible rationale for this particular updating, and no political content to speak of in the melodrama.
There are class tensions.
Des Grieux is a "cavaliere", who, based on what we learn from the melodramma, now seems footloose and without financial resources.
As a setting for a story, Nazi-occupied France is loaded with political and historical complexities.
You can’t just drop an 18th-century opera into that period without raising uncomfortable questions and inviting all the wrong implicatures.
ATTO I takes place in a public square in Amiens, which in this production becomes an imposingly spacious railroad station (as Baden Baden opera theatre originally is)
A tall curved wall in the background suggests a decaying facade of some once-grand building.
A narrow, precipitous stairway leads up to the railroad tracks. The Baden Baden audience must have loved it! ("It's like being here!").
The square is dominated by a bustling cafe, with the entrance to a fancy hotel nearby.
Students and cafe regulars wearing assorted informal outfits of muted colors (designed by Fotini Dimou) chat at little tables.
A group of sullen Nazi soldiers sit together.
At one point the crowd gathers around the Nazi soldiers and taunts them playfully.
Could this have actually happened at a cafe in occupied France?
It came across as a slick directorial touch.
Manon is overcome with attraction to des Grieux, feelings that unfold in the radiant warmth and sultry ardour of her singing during their romantic exchanges.
But Manon also subtly reveals Manon’s desperation.
She is a woman whose father seems to have come on hard times and is destined for a convent, yet quivering with sexual desire.
Manon's restlessness has been observed by Geronte, a wealthy tax collector who met Manon and her brother on the train to Amiens.
GERONTE is sung here by the coolly commanding bass Brindley Sherratt.
Somehow sensing that Manon has a frivolous side and a weakness for finery, Geronte decides to abduct her and take her to Paris with him.
But Edmondo (tenor Z. Borichevsky), a student learns of the plan and alerts his friend Des Grieux, who persuades Manon to run away with him to Paris instead.
The mellow-voiced, appealing baritone Massimo Cavalletti had his moments as Manon’s conflicted brother Lescaut, a stolid French soldier.
Though he still seemed to be finding his way into this contrary and malleable character.
Puccini decided not to write a scene showing Manon and des Grieux in Paris -- a curious omission. (Massenet does!)
But we learn from Manon later that, despite the passion she enjoyed with Des Grieux, she could not abide his poverty.
Instead, Puccini shows us what happens next.
Manon goes to live a life of luxury as Geronte’s mistress in his palatial Paris apartment, which is Act II.
Des Grieux, appearing haggard yet crazed with love, bursts impulsively into Geronte’s apartment where he finds his Manon,looking like Lana Turner with blonde locks and a sequined dress.
The two singers were at their most inspired during the confrontational love duet at the core of this act.
The betrayed Geronte summons Nazi soldiers to arrest Manon, who is caught trying to leave with des Grieux, her hands loaded with jewelry.
This production turns the remaining two acts, in which the convicted Manon is put aboard a ship bound for New Orleans, into a muddled, semi-abstract representation of exile.
At the harbour of Le Havre we see the bow of an ocean-liner docked near a pier, under which a jail is visible.
The ship, meant to be ominous, looks kind of cheap.
Manon is pushed by Nazi soldiers into a line of prostitutes bound for exile in New Orleans.
But this plot turn would make no sense in Nazi-occupied France.
Instead, the prisoners are given dingy gray frocks to wear, again stirring up troubling questions.
Are these women going to a Nazi concentration camp?
The last act of "Manon Lescaut" absurdly takes place in what is described as a vast arid plain outside New Orleans.
Puccini and his librettists did not know Louisiana geography.
Manon is dying of thirst and exhaustion.
Des Grieux tries but can’t find water to sustain her.
Eyre turns the scene metaphoric.
The entwined lovers are trapped in the crumbled ruins of walls and stairs from Amiens and Paris.
Opolais and Alagna had to crawl unsteadily among the accordion-like ripples of those overturned stairs, which looked dangerous, not to mention ridiculous.
You would think they had been exiled to the ruins of the Baden-Baden Festival, or its original railway station, rather!
But these two tenacious artists did their finest, most emotional singing of the night during this tragic final scene.
Opolais brought anguished beauty to the grim aria “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”.
During the curtain calls at the end, when Alagna appeared he went straight to the prompter’s box and heartily shook the extended hand (all that the audience could see) of this production’s experienced prompter Joan Dornemann.
It was a lovely gesture -- and so was the implicature ("You were so helpful!").