Senseless War-Torn Manon Lescaut

Metropolitan Opera, New York; February 15, 2016—Manon as film noir femme fatale? Well, she certainly is selfish and leads her lover to ruin, but why on earth update the opera to the 1940s in Nazi-occupied France? For those who have seen quite enough Nazis in opera productions that do not call for fascism of any sort, this take is unnecessary.

Director Richard Eyre and designer Rob Howell have worked hard to make the transition fit, but it doesn’t. The anachronisms are plentiful. Act 1 now takes place at a café in front of a railway station; when a “horse and carriage” is announced a train arrives. I suspect that the Nazi occupiers, brutes that they were, would not have genially tolerated being mocked as they are here. Manon does a tango to the tune of a minuet in Act 2, and I wonder, were prostitutes exiled to New Orleans in 1941, as they are in the third act?

In addition, Howell’s mammoth sets dwarf the singers and are pretty ugly: the curved, stone façade of a somewhat crumbling building looms over all, and a long, narrow staircase may make sense for a railway station, but hardly for Manon’s boudoir, and the final act looks as if the first two acts have been destroyed by a bomb, with the staircase, et al, in ruins. The gigantic prow of a ship with a jail beneath it (?) dominates Act 3, and it’s somewhat effective.

The production originated in Baden-Baden with a cast different from the one announced in New York: Here it was to be a star-studded event starring Kristina Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann; the latter cancelled, which is his wont lately, and Roberto Alagna, in the neighborhood for Canio in Pagliacci, never having sung Des Grieux on stage, stepped in to save the show. Since Manon, in Eyre’s view, is hardly the simple country girl on her way to a convent–she’s awfully flirty–the youthful, ardent, but not young Alagna is an ideal foil, particularly when the emphasis is on sexual attraction rather than love, as it is here.

Alagna is in his best voice, which now is relentlessly loud and being used with too much muscularity. But he is still a very appealing artist and he sings off the text, with superb diction. Opolais, in Act 2 looking like Lana Turner and behaving alternately like a fool and a lunatic sexpot, sings intelligently and with gorgeous tone, rarely giving it all away, clearly saving it for an epic, tragic, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” of great desperation.

Brindley Sherratt’s Geronte, here a Nazi collaborator, makes a suitably nasty sound, but Met debutante Zach Borichevsky is a tedious stick figure as Edmondo, normally a role that impresses. Massimo Cavalletti’s Lescaut is a wobbly cipher. Bless the heart of Fabio Luisi, soon to leave the post of Met’s principal guest conductor (how long can one wait for the other shoe?), for keeping the entire evening together, let alone musically brilliant, despite the where-are-we nonsense on stage.