It is almost exactly five years that Anna Netrebko took on the role of Manon in Berlin (April 2007), where she was partnered by long-term collaborator, Rolando Villazón – an account immortalised on DVD, conducted by Daniel Barenboim (DG, 2008). Despite being directed by Vincent Paterson – better known for his work with Madonna and other pop stars, and also responsible for Netrebko’s cringe-worthy debut DVD, The Woman, the Voice – that Berlin Manon, set in 1950s Hollywood, works very well both visually and aurally. Many no doubt objected to Manon presented as a pole-dancing Marilyn Monroe in Act IV, but the whole production reflected the egocentric nature of her character, even if it did border on exaggeration at times.

I was interested to see how this compared with Laurent Pelly’s production at The Met last night, broadcast live at Waterloo’s IMAX cinema. Some readers will know that this production first graced the stage two years ago at the ROH, Covent Garden, again with Netrebko in the title role, but with a different tenor lead and supporting cast. Updated from the eighteenth century to Massenet’s own nineteenth century, what was most admirable about this production was its ability to convey the raw sexuality of the opera without making it crude. No nudity (though admittedly a lot of cleavage from Netrebko), no attempts to turn the chorus women into prostitutes, no neon red ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ signs. To my eyes, it achieved a fine balance between maintaining tradition and engaging a twenty-first century audience. The pacing of the direction was such that there was no opportunity to be bored even for a second.

It should be said there were one or two aspects that seemed a little odd: the Act I town scenery looked as though someone had forgotten to paint it – just a drab, grey outline of houses; in the promenade of Act II, there appeared to be a giant orange basketball in the background – I have absolutely no idea what this was meant to be; and in the following act, it was rather incongruous having Abbé des Grieux’s simple bed planted actually in St Surplice – I think the message came across from the two lovers quite clearly without seeing them literally end up in bed with each other. These were, however, of little distraction, and in general the sets worked well. I especially liked the way the simple, grey, wedge-shaped pavements sloping up and down in Act II were re-used for the bleak final act: situated on either side of the stage, with the ‘fat’ end of the wedge nearest the audience and the ‘thin’ end continuing to a black backdrop; they created the effect of a long, empty grey road disappearing into blackness.

Netrebko had no fewer than six costumes over the course of the five acts: from the simple blue skirt, navy coat, navy boater and black, schoolgirl-like boots from the opening act; to the full-length powder-pink dress decorated with white lace and a far-from-subtle feathery white hat in Act II; to a beautifully simple, sleeveless dress with which she re-seduced the now Abbé des Grieux in the central act. The striking, figure-hugging, deep-magenta dress in Act IV stood out brilliantly against the dull, grey-green background of the seedy gambling scene, and also contrasted brilliantly with the denouement, which saw the broken Manon adorned in a tatty, torn brown overcoat.

All these costumes played an integral part of Manon’s seductive, ambitious, dangerous character to tremendous effect, and all complemented Netrebko’s remarkable visual beauty. This is an aspect that we should not be afraid to mention with reference to a character such as Manon. There are many opera ‘stars’ today who have clearly risen to the top on the commercial fast-track ultimately because of their looks (this applies to both women and men), and some readers might argue that this has been the case for Netrebko, who has made some wonderful recordings but also some disastrous mistakes (not least her abysmal Pergolesi CD with Pappano. What were DG thinking?). But we cannot escape the fact that Manon is not only beautiful, but must be beautiful in order for her character to make sense, and this is especially true when viewing a production – with its multiple close-ups – on a cinematic screen. To this end, Netrebko is perfect in the role, plausibly casting her spell on all those around her and in the audience with her stage presence and her superb acting ability (whatever one may think of her voice, this is a skill that the soprano has always amply demonstrated). She was so perfectly girlish and excited in Act I; refined, indignant and utterly dominating in Acts II and IV, and her Act III seduction made all Lulus, Salomes and other operatic femme fatales pale by comparison.

Much as the major record companies would like us to believe otherwise however, opera is not only about glamorous singers, and fortunately there are still those around who realise that singing actually plays a part as well. It is well known that pronunciation has never been one of Netrebko’s strongest areas, and on certain recordings it takes a while even to ascertain which language she is singing in, let alone the actual words themselves. Her spoken French, it must be said, was certainly passable, and she also seemed more comfortable with the language in her lower register. In the other direction, beyond a certain pitch it fell into somewhat vaguer territory, but in general this aspect has certainly come a long way since her first recordings, especially her debut DG disc.

It’s also encouraging to hear that her sometimes wayward intonation (in particular a tendency to go sharp) seems to be far better controlled of late, including last night. ‘Je suis encor’ tout étourdie’ and ‘Voyons, Manon, plus de chimères!’ demonstrated girlish excitement and despair respectively in Act I, not only in her acting but vocally also. There has been much discussion about Netrebko’s voice becoming ‘darker’ since she gave birth, and there is definitely a difference in the voice, though it is still able to express a youthful playfulness. It also still lacks the effortless agility of some bel canto sopranos, but although she was occasionally just a couple of microtones under the penultimate or final top note at the end of a number (such as the top D at the end of the Act II Gavotte, ‘Obéissons quand leur voix appelle’, these slightly sour top notes had warmed up by the start of Act III, with excellent intonation for the remainder of the work. Her Act II ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ was utterly heart-breaking – even rivalling Angela Gheorghiu’s award-winning account.

Equally heart-breaking was tenor Piotr Beczala’s ‘En fermant les yeux’ – a little flat towards the opening, but very minimally, supported by a gentle, soft bed of accompanying strings. I’m going to put my neck on the line here and say that Beczala is quite simply one of the best Chevalier des Grieuxs I have even heard. While I enjoyed Villazón’s performance in the Netrebko-Berlin account, I felt he suffered from the same, rather over-exaggerated passion as Roberto Alagna on the otherwise excellent Gheorghiu-Pappano EMI recording. Beczala offered a committed, passionate account without resorting to melodramatic sobs and cries as he sang, and his voice sets a standard few current tenors can match, let alone surpass. There were moments where, if I didn’t know who was singing, I could have sworn I was listening to a young Domingo. ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image’ was well-nigh perfect: impassioned, noble, sincere and supported by a rock-solid technique. Similarly, his interaction with Netrebko in ‘Manon, Sphinx étonnant, véritable sirène!’ was electrifying. His penetrating sky-blue eyes and innocent-looking face looked exactly right for the role – a good man destroyed by his weakness for beauty. Beczala has worked with Netrebko on numerous occasions before, including at the Met (Lucia di Lammermoor, etc.) and they seem to have a real connection. The sexual chemistry of the two lovers in Act III in particular was palpable, and vocally too their voices seem better matched than Netrebko and Villazón. Why on earth hasn’t one of the big labels snapped him up yet?

The supporting characters also received above-par performances. Paulo Szot’s Lescaut just managed to stay this side of over-acting, and offered fine singing throughout (a wonderfully characterful ‘Ô Rosalinde, il me faudrait gravir le Pinde’). I was also taken with David Pittsinger’s Le Comte des Grieux: ‘Épouse quelque brave fille’ received a tender interpretation that simultaneously evoked fatherly love and concern for his son. I did find Christophe Mortagne’s Guillot de Morfontaine a little over-done: I know it’s an exaggerated character, but his performance was so camp as to border on the pantomimic.

The Met orchestra played wonderfully under conductor Fabio Luisi. The panoply of orchestral colours in Massenet’s score was brought vividly to life, and the ensemble was kept tight to an almost military degree. The synchronisation between what was happening on the stage and the sound from the pit was spot-on: for example, every time Netrebko spun round and concluded a phrase by sitting down, the accompanying pizzicatos for the latter action were placed at exactly the right time, and this as true for all the actions onstage – very impressive indeed.

This was a hugely enjoyable and satisfying Manon, with outstanding singing and acting from the two leads, as well as excellent support form all else involved.  I eagerly await the release of this as a Met-DG DVD.

4 stars

Dominic Wells

(Photos by Ken Howard)