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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Opera Review: The Girl in the Bubble

Kristin Opalais returns as Manon Lescaut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cast aside: Kristin Opalais in the last scene of Manon Lescaut. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
When the Metropolitan Opera opened its new Richard Eyre production of Manon Lescaut last February, it stirred up a firestorm of criticism. Mr. Eyre moved the action ahead to France in the 1940s, an occupied and defeated nation under the Nazi boot. On Monday night, this revival featuring Kristin Opalais in the role that she created last season seemed particularly on point, its oppressive sets, decadent, doomed atmosphere and the libretto's treatment of women as a commodity a set of mirrors for these troubled times.



Ms. Opalais is singing two performances this week, with the rest of the run being sung by Anna Netrebko. However, Monday night's performance showed why the Latvian soprano remains ideally suited to the role of Puccini's heroine. This opera was written just nine years after Massenet's Manon and follows a different set of incidents from the same novel. In both versions, Manon Lescaut is a flighty girl who finds true love, a decadent sugar daddy, imprisonment, exile and death over the course of a taut two-and-a-half hours.

From her demure entrance, Ms. Opalais sang with plush and captivating tone, her girlishness irresistable in the early act. In the first of  series of passionate duets with  Des Grieux (Marcelo Alvarez) the two singers created a sort of emotional "magic bubble", a romantic world which shunted aside their sleazy surrounding. She was equally excellent in the second act, where she is the plaything of the rich Geronte before attempting to abandon him for Des Grieux.

In the last two acts, she was a compelling tragedienne first as a harried prisoner being shipped out from Le Havre and finally as a starving refugee wandering in the "deserts of Louisiana." (This, it should be noted refers to the Louisiana Purchase, not the American state itself.") Even as she begged for her survival, Ms. Opalais' Manon wast still the same silly girl who believed, Candide-like in the goodness of mankind. And then she died.

For his part, tenor Marcelo Álvarez turned the passionate Des Grieux into something of a tour-de-force, delivering what might be the singer's best performance on the Met stage since he arrived there in 1999. He sang his arias and numbers with Manon with rich tone. Most impressive: his minute-long outburst in the third act where the tenor hit the Met audience with everything he had, delivered with a potent squillo that stayed firm and pleasing to the ear. He brought tremendous power and a quality of comfort and despair to the grim final scene.

The supporting cast was generally solid. Baritone Christopher Maltman worked hard as Manon's sleazy brother=part procurer and part sympathetic figure. He seemed over-parted in this complex role whose sole function is dramatic support. Bass Brindley Sherratt was appropriately bumptuous as the rich Geronte. His drawing-room scenes with Manon reminding this viewer of last year's staging of Lulu. The Met chorus added color to the big public scenes, managed with brisk, experienced efficiency by regular house conductor Marco Armiliato.

Mr. Eyre is fond of unit sets, and his Manon Lescaut uses a big staircase and a curving gallery wall to create the opening cafe scene, the carriages replaced by arriving and departing locomotives upstage. The blocking uses the sheer height of the Met stage to good effect, with characters singing at unexpected points, particularly Geronte in his Act I balcony. However, the sameness of this set becomes a distraction, much like the "broken disc" that made up the stage of the Ring at Bayreuth in the 1970s. The "wasteland" finale was set in the "broken" remains of the set, suggesting that some terrible incident happened, but  that Manon and Des Grieux had never gotten on the boat in the first place. A black curtain would have sufficed.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.