Massenet’s Manon is full of glitter and
sensuality, brimming with joie de vivre although, like
Massenet’s equally popular opera Werther, it charts a tale
of a tragic love, how the career and life of a young man is destroyed
by a teenage femme fatale. Of course, Puccini also wrote
an opera on exactly this subject - Manon Lescaut - but
whereas Massenet has his Manon pay for her hedonistic ways by
expiring on the road to Le Havre, Puccini takes her to Louisiana
before he allows her to die. It is interesting to note that in
Nicolai Gedda's recently published autobiography (reviewed on
this site in September 2000), he says that he prefers the Massenet
opera of the two. It is easy to see why. Massenet's opera teems
with lovely melodies.
I was very enthusiastic in my review of the year
2000 Pappano EMI audio recording, "a magnificent sparkling
performance beautifully paced, with Alagna and Gheorghiu on top
form leading an impressive supporting cast". Although this
new DVD video version of the opera does not quite scale those
heights, it is nevertheless a very satisfying production of Massenet’s
masterpiece – employing traditional, straightforward visual production
values - simple but effective sets, good lighting and sumptuous
costumes. Good but sparing use is made of the revolving stage
particularly to emphasise the spatial perspectives and the drama
in the Saint Sulpice scene of Act III and the opening of Act III
set at the Paris Promenade Cours la Reine. The ballet here is
flamboyantly costumed - wide hooped skirts and feathered head-dresses
- reflect the extravagances of the court of the Sun King Louis
XIV and the music of Lully is recalled. Counterpointing this finery
is a trio of dancers in freer style dressed as though they had
stepped out of a commedia dell’arte painting by Watteau.
And, most importantly, there is splendid singing and acting in
practically every role.
There is no mistaking the fact that this is Manon's
opera for Massenet most clearly favours his heroine. Renée
Fleming, with that lovely smoky middle-toned, secure wide ranging
soprano voice, responds beautifully to her every expressive opportunity
and colours her voice accordingly She passes through (feigned?)
girlhood innocence in her first Act I aria, 'I'm still completely
dizzy…' to the venal, sophisticated, spoilt and kept Manon of
Acts III and IV singing hedonistically that life and riches should
be enjoyed whilst one is still young. Yet she is poignant too,
in Act II, in bidding farewell to the little table and all that
has been familiar to Des Grieux and herself in their little Paris
love nest when she realises she must leave him otherwise his father
will disinherit him.
Marcelo Alvarez is very convincing as the tortured
Des Grieux. When he first sees Manon (Act I) he is captivated
immediately. A sweetly ecstatic violin solo singing above an orchestra
transported to another world, comments as he sings 'Good Heavens!
Is this a dream…I'm no longer my own master'. Alvarez inserts
just that right little crack in his voice to show the intensity
of his feelings. His little pianissimo
reverie when he daydreams of a humble little retreat for himself
and Manon in Act II is lovingly phrased. At Saint Sulpice, when
he is about to solemnise his commitment to God, he poignantly,
fervently seeks oblivion from the painful memories of Manon. At
the Hotel Transylvania he is so convincing in showing his feelings
for the headstrong Manon – a mix of loving and loathing, 'Manon!
Manon! You are like an astonishing
sphinx, a veritable siren!' as she persuades him to gamble everything.
The duets between Fleming and Alvarez are memorable
too. Quite electrifying are the passages
in Act I where they realise they are falling in love and must
elope together from her intended religious life and from the lascivious
attentions of Guillot and Brétigny; and the scene at Saint
Sulpice in which Manon seduces Des Grieux back from the church.
And that last duet when Manon lies dying on the road to Le Havre
'Oh Manon!…Manon! You are crying…', with Massenet introducing
yet another beautiful tune, is a glorious conclusion to the opera.
Jean-Luc Chaignaud is excellent as the arrogant
self-seeking Lescaut. Michel Sénéchal is every bit
as good as the ultimately vindictive deluded ass Guillot de Morfontaine
teased beyond forbearance by the three girls, Pousette, Javotte
and Rosette - their parts delightfully and amusingly sung, for
the most part in unison. Alain Vernhes
makes a dignified Le Comte des Grieux, noble yet sympathetic to
Des Grieux’s best interests in the scene in Saint Sulpice when
he gently urges his wayward son to settle down with a suitable
wife rather than take the cloth. This is a strikingly conceived
passage as it moves from dialogue to mélodrame,
to arioso and back again.
A splendid production, beautifully acted and
sung by the principals - and the whole cast. Recommended.