Manon is a strange opera. This is no surprise, however, as Prévost's Manon Lescaut is a strange young woman: shallow, vain, unfaithful, yet loveable and even fatally desirable. In his later operatic setting, Giacomo Puccini sentimentalized her. Jules Massenet, on the other hand, remained a skeptic, and his score – like Manon herself - glitters coolly, skating on the surface of deeper emotions.
This two-DVD set was recorded at the Opéra National de Paris (Opéra Bastille) in June 2001 in front of an appreciative audience. William Orlandi's simple, evocative, and nearly abstract sets – most of them on a turntable – loom over the characters like Fate, but his costumes are appropriately ornate and in the style of early 18th-century France. The lighting, like the opera itself, is emotionally cool. Massenet's apparent ambivalence about his "heroine" – is she a sinner or a saint? – is mirrored not just by the singers but by the spaces through with they move. The director is Gilbert Deflo, whose fine production of L'Orfeo also appears on a DVD reviewed on Classical Net.
Massenet included too many characters in this opera. Only Manon and her Chevalier des Grieux are fully developed. Renée Fleming triumphs in what we are told is her favorite role. Looking like a character from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, she moves from innocence to dissolution and a heartbreaking last act - her face haggard, her dress stained, and her red hair streaming wildly around her tortured face. Her voice is arguably too big for this role, but what she lacks in warmth she makes up for in brilliance, and the audience loves her. Rising star Marcelo Álvarez brings Carreras-like inflections to Des Grieux, and he carries off his two big arias with sensitivity and pathos. Chaignaud makes no more of Lescaut than most singers, and the rest of the cast performs expertly, and in the authentic style, in spite of the composer's rather sketchy portraiture. Veteran Michel Sénéchal has little voice left, but as Guillot de Morfontaine, he's an unforgettable old roué. Lopez-Cobos conducts understandingly, and does nothing to upset the status quo.
Acts One and Two are on the first DVD; the last three acts are on the second. There are no bonus features, and I question why a second DVD was required. The video aspect ratio is 16:9, and the available sound formats are stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. There are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Italian. (Opéra comique does not necessarily mean "comic opera," however.) Video and sound quality are very much up to par. Recommended.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle