Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
On the one hand, Manon is a sentimental, suffering heroine. Sounds like standard issue opera. Or is she a dangerous, free-thinking woman on the loose?
Chances are the new Metropolitan Opera production of Jules Massenet’s “Manon” will emphasize the latter. Thanks to director-designer Laurent Pelly, the story of a vibrant young French girl who declines life in a convent for romance in Paris will be a real Tour de France.
“Manon” is the next MET Live in HD performance to come to Durango. It airs at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Storyteller Theatre. Running time is about four hours with two intermissions. The five-act structure begins at an Amiens inn where Manon is en route to a convent. On the road, as it were, three different men become entranced by her beauty and vivacity. One, the Chevalier des Gireaux, persuades her to run off to Paris.
Act II finds them living the high life on his father’s money. Another nobleman arrives, tells Manon that des Grieux’s enraged parent will soon kidnap the young twit. Manon chooses to run off with the wealthy informant who offers yet more luxury, fortunately also in Paris.
When Manon learns that her first love is about to become a priest, she rekindles his flame and he renounces his vows. The duet becomes the spectacular scene that ends Act III. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and the Polish-born lyric tenor Piotr Beczala will probably sing at the top of their registers as they struggle with their white-hot passion. Expect to see Netrebko rip Beczala’s black collar right off – something new for a 21st century “Manon.”
As every other turgid 19th century romance has evolved, des Gireaux and Manon’s renewed life together devolves. The young nobleman gambles away his trust fund, and a cheating scandal results in arrests. The unfortunate lovers land in prison. Charged as an accomplice, Manon is sentenced to deportation.
The French really know how to punish an uppity woman of their own tribe; they send her off to the land of the vulgar – the United States. A last-minute rescue fails, and the final scene won’t be given away here.
That said, “Manon” is one beautiful French opera. The new production premiered last year at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and has been brought to the Met’s stage in all its modern grandeur. A Manon for our time.
“The title character,” Pelly has said, “is lively, free, young – and she manipulates all the men around her purely for her own pleasure.”
You’ll see this interpretation acted out on enormous, abstract sets, stark in their simplicity and power. Pelly and his set designer. Chantal Thomas, have said the sets are fundamentally “masculine,” a foil for Manon’s womanly ways. In contrast to the monumental simplicity of the stage, the costumes are essentially belle époque – plenty of feathers, chiffon and frou-frou for the female lead. The men wear the powersuits of the time, formal top hats and frock coats or severe military-style uniforms.
From her plain girlish dress in the beginning to her lavish gowns, big brimmed hats and expensive Parisian lingerie, Manon defies them all. But of course a defiant woman, however stylish, always gets her comeuppance in the end.
As Pelly has written about his new interpretation: “There’s nothing so dangerous as a loose, free thinking woman.”
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.