Manon: Glitter and be Glum

Oropesa and Fabiano, photo @ Marty Sohl
If there was a single performance I was looking forward to the most in the Met's 19-20 season it would have to be the revival of Massenet's Manon. One of my favorite operas with some of my favorite singers -- what could possibly go wrong? It turns out -- everything? The September 29 matinee performance of Manon has to go down as one of the dullest, most lifeless hours I've ever spent at the opera house.

To be fair, the lack of energy in the performance might have had to do with how empty the house was. I've never seen the Met this empty in the usually popular matinee performances. My row in the balcony had one other person. I was able to move down to the Grand Tier after intermission to sit with my friend. The Grand Tier was similarly empty. I guess everyone bought their tickets to Porgy and Bess and Macbeth this week.

The wheelchair ramps in Pelly's production, photo @ Marty Sohl
Another thing that hampered the performance was Laurent Pelly's prosaic, nonsensical production. Pelly reset the opera to the Belle Epoque era and basically decided to tell the story by having Manon wear lots of different costumes that seem inspired by Hello Dolly!. The main set motif is a series of criss-crossing gray wheelchair-friendly ramps. This is by far the worst Pelly production I've ever seen. I usually love his work.

The "ballet" for the Cours-la-Reine scene was so badly choreographed that I actually checked my program to see who was responsible for this dreck. Turns out it was Lionel Hoche.  I also hate it when otherwise completely vanilla productions have a sudden moment when they want to be "edgy." This happened in the Cours-la-Reine scene -- after the ballet performance the ballerinas are forcibly carried kicking and screaming offstage by the lecherous men. This might work in a production that was consistent in highlighting gender inequality. But everything else is by the numbers. Other ridiculousness abounds: at St. Sulpice des Grieux's bed is right behind the church pews. Bleh.

Third thing that hampered the performance: Maurizio Benini's perfunctory, lifeless conducting. Massenet's score is full of delicate motifs but you wouldn't have known it with Benini's sledgehammer approach.

Oropesa, photo @ Marty Sohl
But anyway, back to the vocal performances. I've heard Lisette Oropesa since she sang smaller roles like the Rheinmaiden in Das Rheingold in 2011. She was one of the most showcased singers in the Lindemann Young Artist program, but by her own admission she got frustrated with the roles she was being given and wanted to branch out. So she started singing leading roles all over Europe -- Lucia di Lammermoor in Madrid and London, Les Huguenots in Paris, I Masnadieri in La Scala. I've followed her career the best I could and have been so impressed with the things I've heard.  I also loved hearing her again as Gretel two years ago. So I was overjoyed when it was announced she was returning to the Met but as a leading lady in Manon.

Good news first: Oropesa's voice has grown in scope and range. Her bright, pingy soprano fills the house easily. Her middle voice is more full-bodied. She has some of the most excellent coloratura technique of sopranos on the scene today.

Oropesa's Manon was well-sung. She has the range and was able to switch gears between the high-flying coloratura of the Gavotte and the simpler, winsome arias like "Adieu, petite notre table." She is much more idiomatic than, say, Anna Netrebko (who originated this production). Manon is a marathon role and at the end of the afternoon Oropesa's voice was still strong. She did have some trouble with high notes. The high D in "Je marche sur tous les chemins" was rather short and the D in the Gavotte wiry and barely touched. The D flat in the gambling scene was off pitch. Her usually stellar trill was surprisingly smudged. But overall vocally Oropesa delivered the goods.

Oropesa in gambling scene, photo @ Marty Sohl
It was her characterization that was disappointing. Her Manon has no charm, no gaiety, no sensuality. For most of the afternoon her "acting" consisted of spreading her arms out and twirling. Oropesa said in a Sirius interview that she feels Manon doesn't love Des Grieux, and she really dreams for the finer things in life. Oropesa's interpretation of Manon was very cold. In the gambling scene she ordered des Grieux to gamble the way the Queen might order her butler to bring her some tea. Oropesa's hard-boiled interpretation also meant that the winsomeness of Massenet's music wasn't really there. "Adieu, notre petite table" was well-sung but without emotion, and in the final act as Manon is dying one doesn't get the sense that this Manon feels badly about anything other than losing all her bling.

Fabiano as "Abbe" des Grieux, photo @ Marty Sohl
Michael Fabiano as des Grieux has a huge following among a certain type of opera fan because his large, muscular tenor with plenty of squillo recalls the old-school Italian tenors. He sang des Grieux the way he sings everything -- with plenty of passion and intensity, and occasionally raw vocals. For most of the afternoon he was in good voice. His voice rang through the auditorium with vibrancy. A few sour notes: he had a small crack on the B-flat in "Ah, fuyez," and "En fermant les yeux" didn't have as much float as it could have. But one couldn't help but feel that this role wasn't in Fabiano's wheelhouse -- I'd love to hear him in Puccini's Manon Lescaut.  The delicate, lyrical French style eludes him.

Fabiano and Oropesa, photo @ Marty Sohl
The chemistry between Fabiano and Oropesa was non-existent. Manon might be capricious and materialistic but her and des Grieux's relationship has an "l'amour foux" element to it. If it didn't why would Manon run to St. Sulpice after having all the material comforts of the world in the Cours la Reine scene? But Fabiano and Oropesa weren't believable for a second as a couple so hot for each other that they start tearing each others' clothes off right in church (albeit in a conveniently placed cot behind the pews). The audience actually laughed at that moment. Their final scene on the roadside was not moving at all. For one Oropesa looked healthy and vigorous. Fabiano who usually sings with such intensity didn't seem heartbroken about losing Manon. The lack of chemistry put a damper on the whole afternoon. You just didn't root for these two crazy kids to make it. I wonder if the total lack of chemistry is more due to the Pelly production rather than the singers.

Rucinski as Lescaut
The supporting roles were all well-cast. The best characterization came from Artur Rucinski as Lescaut. Rucinski's handsome baritone and charming demeanor were perfect for the oily hustler that is Lescaut. His gambling aria was a highlight of the otherwise sleepy afternoon. Carlo Bosi was slimey as Guillot, Brett Polegato great as the wealthy fool Bretigny, and Kwangchul Youn was cold and dignified as Comte des Grieux. The chorus was at the Met's usually fine standards although it seems they were not given any direction at all in this revival as they just stood in lines and watched the action as they sang.

Thankfully the HD of this performance isn't until October 26 and maybe the performances will have gelled more by then. But overall I think Oropesa and Fabiano are just superb singers who were mismatched and cast in the wrong opera. This is what Oropesa at her best can do:



Fabiano at his best:

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