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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon (1882)
Opera in five acts
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille
after the novel by L’Abbé Prévost "L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut"
Manon Lescaut…Renée Fleming
Le Chevalier des Grieux…Marcelo Alvarez
Lescaut…Jean-Luc Chaignaud
Le Compte des Grieux…Alain Vernhes
Guillot de Morfontaine…Michel Sénéchal
Monsieur De Brétigny…Franck Ferrari
Pousette...Jaël Azzaretti
Javotte…Isabelle Cals
Rosette…Delphine Haidan
L’Hôtelier…Christophe Fel
Orchestra and Choirs of the Opéra National de Paris/Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Recorded at the Opéra National De Paris/Opéra Bastille, June 2001
TDK DVD Video DV-OPMANON [164 mins]

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.

Ian Lace



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