The Story Begins...
When the beautiful schoolgirl Manon Lescaut meets the young Chevalier des Grieux, it is love at first sight. But Manon also adores money and beautiful things. Which will prove stronger: her desire for a life of luxury or her love for Des Grieux?
A Victim of Men
Laurent Pelly’s eye-catching production is set during the Belle Époque, the period in which Massenet wrote this opera. This was an era when many courtesans thrived, but also one in which a high proportion of men viewed independent-minded women with hostility and suspicion. For Pelly, Manon is both a victim and a manipulator of men.
At the Centre of the Story
Massenet based his opera on Abbé Prévost’s hugely popular novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731). Prévost’s story is told wholly from Des Grieux’s point of view, and is a cautionary tale showing how obsessive love can bring a man to the point of ruin. Massenet alters the story substantially; Manon is the central character for long stretches of his opera, and he makes it clear that her love for Des Grieux – despite her reckless pleasure-seeking – is genuine and passionate.
Massenet was one of the great melodists of 19th-century opera, and Manon contains some of his finest arias and duets. Highlights include Manon’s flamboyant Gavotte in Act III scene 1, Des Grieux’s anguished ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image’ in Act III scene 2 and Manon and Des Grieux’s passionate reunion, ‘N’est-ce plus ma main’ in the same scene and tender duet in Act V. Other musical highlights include a neoclassical ballet in Act III.
A Singers’ Favourite
Manon was a great success from its premiere, and remained in the repertory even when Massenet’s other works were rarely performed. The roles of Manon and Des Grieux have been popular with many leading singers, including Mary Garden, Nellie Melba, Victoria de los Ángeles, Beverly Sills, Anna Netrebko and Natalie Dessay; and Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus and Vittorio Grigolo.
Manon runs from 14 January to 4 February 2014. Tickets are still available.
It seems that barely a month goes by without Virgin Classics releasing another recording by Natalie Dessay. Since November, we've had her on CD singing Amina in a complete version of La sonnambula, a baroque coupling of Bach's Magnificat and Handel's Dixit Dominus, and more recently a disc of Italian arias with a bonus DVD of her performance of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor filmed at the Met in September.
Virgin's investment in the French soprano continues with this new DVD of Massenet's steamy romantic opera Manon, filmed at the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, in June 2007. But as was the case with the CD of Italian arias, I find Dessay's voice entirely unsuited to the big nineteenth-century roles, so that despite her undoubted commitment to the performance, I find it difficult to be fully moved by it.
The DVD is disappointing for many reasons, however, and top of the list is David McVicar's production, which was first seen at ENO in the late 1990s. McVicar tries to present the opera both in period and as a contemporary drama, and in so doing falls between two stools in my opinion. The costumes are of the nineteenth century, but to make the piece grittier he has actors sitting on tiered seating at the back of the set, somewhat like spectators in a bullring. This has great potential for illustrating society's observation of the tortured relationship between Manon and Des Grieux, especially in light of the way they turn their back on the organised conventions of society, not least religion (an aspect which is justly emphasised in the production).
But after a while it becomes very irritating to have the onstage audience applaud each number: one of the most contemporary things about this opera is its immediacy, but McVicar's emphasis of the artifice of conventions such as the ballet and vocal set pieces distances us from the potent emotional core of what is perhaps Massenet's greatest work. It's also the case that society plays an active part in Manon's downfall, but here they seem too distanced from her to be involved in her fate.
Tanya McCallin's designs aren't especially effective, either, though there seems no doubt that she was influenced by McVicar's view of how the opera should be presented. Since the tiered backdrop is permanent, McCallin has to introduce props and screens to suggest all the different locations. This allows for great fluidity between scenes but serves the drama very badly in the more intimate moments. Clever camerawork almost makes up for it but it's hard not to wish that when Manon and Des Grieux make love on the floor, they were in a room rather than abandoned in the midst of a load of clutter. McCallin's costumes, however, are truly handsome.
Perhaps it suits Dessay's approach to the character of Manon to play her in a production where she is already portrayed as more multi-faceted than films of more traditional productions starring Renée Fleming, Beverley Sills and Edita Gruberova might have us believe. She arrives at the beginning in an overcoat with long sleeves, gambolling about like a child, and later shows passion in the scene of Des Grieux's abduction, manipulation in the casino scene and resignation in the death scene, a dramatic trajectory which might appeal to some people. However, Dessay's performance leaves me totally cold, largely because she has neither the heart nor the dignity of any of her forebears mentioned above. Nor does she have their vocal ability: compare Sills' tonally lustrous, soul-rending version of 'Adieu, notre petite table' with Dessay's vocally thin rendition on this DVD, or listen to the strained coloratura in the gavotte, and it's hard not to feel that Dessay's light soprano is overstretched by the role.
Another problem with the production is that there appears to be little chemistry between Dessay and Rolando Villazón in this, their first onstage encounter. They are neither physically nor vocally well matched, which seriously undermines the motivation of the drama. Villazón experienced vocal difficulties during the run and announced a brief sabbatical from live performance soon afterwards, so it is perhaps no surprise that there are moments of slight discomfort, largely in the aria 'Ah! fuyez, douce image'. But the tenor's passion is never in question, so that even when he oversings the final section of this number, it still has an impact. Furthermore, his gently restrained performance of 'En fermant les yeux' is genuinely heart-stopping, indeed the highlight of the recording for me. So this Manon is not Villazón's finest hour, perhaps, but it does contain some of his finest minutes.
The only fully reliable singing comes from Manuel Lanza, an excellent Lescaut, but the rest of the cast is largely second rate. Sadly, this includes Samuel Ramey, who is far beyond his vocal prime as Le Comte. Whilst he retains gravitas and a commitment to the text, there is such a wobble in his voice now that it is difficult to enjoy his singing. The other singers are efficient but make little impact.
Victor Pablo Pérez was unknown to me until this recording, but his conducting is largely very impressive. Not for nothing is this opera set in the eighteenth century: whilst Massenet provides lush Romantic orchestrations for the emotional climaxes, the score is also characterised by a lightness of touch, to which this conductor responds intelligently. Occasionally, more tension might help the onstage drama, but the Liceu Symphony Orchestra plays well throughout.
On a point of presentation, I was surprised both by the lack of information in the two-page liner booklet, which amounts to little more than a cast list and doesn't even have a track listing (standard with Universal Classics' releases), and the tedium of the badly-edited rehearsal footage. For reasons that are beyond me we are shown Natalie Dessay getting out of the bath prop naked during a rehearsal, but there's little in the way of interviews or contextualisation and the hour-long film is pretty much focussed on Dessay and Villazón.
A very mixed bag, then, which would not be my first choice, but it's always a pleasure to encounter this oft-overlooked work.
By Dominic McHugh