Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Manon: c'est la l'histoire...

Rooting for these crazy kids: Manon and her Chevalier, Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
I attended the opening performance of this season's Manon at the Met, and for fans of stylish, passionate singing, the rest of the run promises to be magnificent. Laurent Pelly's stylish, sinister production I found even more effective in revival than (apparently) I did in its first run. The bourgeois brutality and hypocrisy of which Manon and Des Grieux fall afoul were apparent from the first. And the setting in the fin-de-siècle, with its bustling urban spaces, conspicuous consumption, and religious anxiety (to say nothing of precarious social mobility and the precarious position of women in the public sphere,) really does work remarkably well. My customary raptures over the orchestra must in this case be modified. Their sound, while aptly lush, could be unfocused, and there were occasional lapses in stage-pit synchronization over the course of the evening. Emmanuel Villaume was, however, responsive to the singers in their (many!) challenging arias, and ensembles were well-supported, so matters may improve over the course of the run.

Supporting roles were strongly, even luxuriously cast. Christophe Mortagne, as Guillot, made the petty nastiness of the man all too apparent, never sounded pinched, and offered spoken dialogue of a quality which wouldn't have been out of place in Molière. Another standout was the robust innkeeper of Robert Pomakov. I would have liked to hear more of his strong bass; even in his brief exchanges, he used vocal coloring expressively. The obvious--and obviously justified--class resentment of Pomakov's surly, cynical innkeeper helped set the tone for what was to come. The predatory De Brétigny was sung with welcome nuance by Dwayne Croft. Both vocally and dramatically, Croft exuded sensuality and menace, his phrasing elegant and his dark baritone assured. Having a De Brétigny so finely etched really helped the dramatic balance of the evening, for me. Also excellent was Nicolas Testé as the Comte des Grieux: his phrasing was exquisite, and his characterization of a man torn between his own humane emotional instincts and a conventional sense of duty was very touching. His exchanges with both Des Grieux and Manon emerged with great poignancy. As the entirely reprehensible Lescaut, Russell Braun created a convincing portrait of a self-absorbed sensualist, with instincts honed by experience, but very little true intelligence. Braun resisted the temptation to make Lescaut comic; in a role requiring much blustering bravado, he was never coarse of tone or vulgar of manner (and his French diction was very good.)

Manon and Des Grieux, Act IV.
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
The consensus of the rapturously-applauding audience was that Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau were individually and jointly magnetic as Manon and her Chevalier. I'll make a heroic effort and attempt to discuss them separately, but--to the credit of each--their performances seemed symbiotic. Following his memorable Hoffmann, Grigolo impressed me again with his ardent Chevalier. The long, yearning vocal lines of Massenet suited him well, as did the role of the idealistic and passionate young aristocrat. He also used his physicality well, bounding on stage for his first entrance, matching Manon's exuberance with his own, taking the steps to his doom, in Act II, three at a time. The artificially imposed restraints of the cassock are cast off only to yield to an elegant malaise (pictured left) and finally to despair. Throughout, Grigolo sang expressively, using vocal color beautifully. "En fermant les yeux" was taken with a dreamy slowness, the lingering caress of each image betraying a melancholy that the Chevalier is perhaps afraid to consciously acknowledge. (It has already become clear that he and Manon have fundamentally different ways of seeing the world.) "Ah! fuyez..." emerged, unusually, as the anguished prayer it ostensibly is. Des Grieux may not be a terribly strong character, but Grigolo made me believe that his love was genuine, not heedless. For it is his love for Manon which animates him, first to last, never more than in the febrile anxiety and despairing tenderness of the last act. Grigolo showed the capacity for beautiful piano singing in the lovers' last duet. When Manon dies, the libretto says that the Chevalier gives "un cri déchirant." I never expect tenors to actually do things like that... but Grigolo did: a low, horrible keening that rose gradually to a roar of inarticulable grief, refusing the orchestral resolution even as it blended with it.

Diana Damrau keeps exceeding my expectations. As Manon, she gave a vocal performance that was technically superb and emotionally rich... and she made me like Manon for the first time, even seeing her as a credible and interesting character. Damrau made me feel, as well as acknowledge, the tragedy of Manon's trajectory from a high-spirited girl to a woman of divided loyalties and decreasing options... and, finally, to a woman trampled (literally, in this production) by the society that trapped her in the first place. When Manon tumbles off the stagecoach, disoriented and ecstatic, she has already learned that her delight in the charms of the world and in her own charming person is emphatically disapproved of. So she humors her cousin by performing the demure docility he expects: Damrau not only handled the vocal demands of "Je suis encore tout étourdie" stylishly, she played creatively with their dramatic function. What she really wants is to see the world, standing a-tiptoe to admire the elegance of the courtesans, eagerly greeting the eagerly gazing men. Her horrified rebuff of the lecherous Guillot makes clear to the audience--if not, fully, to her--the categories in which this desired world will try to confine her. In Des Grieux, she finds the attractions of someone who looks at her with admiration instead of disapproval, who will take her by both hands in a mad dance, who will take her away to the almost unimaginable delights of Paris. In Act II, Manon has discovered love... and has happily compartmentalized her life in a way that her adored Chevalier is unable to do. Damrau was eloquent in small exchanges, articulating the emotional complexities that are eventually given full expression in "Adieu, notre petite table," sung with infinite tenderness, profound sadness, and absolutely breathtaking dynamic control. In the Cours-la-Reine scene, we see Manon at her most magnificently performative: exercising the fullest possible control in a claustrophobic role. Damrau was nothing short of regal; but brittle despair was audible in "On n'a pas toujours vingt ans!" In St. Sulpice, tellingly, Manon cannot find peace kneeling on a prie-dieu; but she throws herself wholeheartedly, impulsively, on the mercy of God. And, with equal fierceness, she demands the acknowledgement of her lover. He will not look at her; fine; she will seduce him with her voice alone; she will take his hand in hers; she will press against him, the length of her body fitting into his with familiar and insistent pressure. Damrau carried her crescendo to its triumphant conclusion while marching past her unresponsive lover, kicking off her shoes, undoing her own dress: "N'est-ce plus Manon?" She demanded--and got--a surrender that was also an ecstatically joyful claiming. After this, there can be no doubt that what Manon most wants is Des Grieux; but she knows all too well that they will have to make their own way, and she wants to do so with the money ("De l'or, de l'or, de l'or!") so carelessly thrown around at the gambling tables among which she moves: a striding, prowling, tragically insecure creature. The ways in which she is traumatized by her treatment at the hands of the soldiers appeared all too plausible; but Damrau also made me believe in a Manon still capable of fearlessness, of tenderness, still consoled not merely by the embrace of her lover, but also by her own indestructible sense of self.


  1. Bob Pomakov is a very good singer but he seems rather to have boxed himself into minor roles. He gets plenty of work. He's appeared 210 times at the COC alone and seems to be the go to singer for roles like Monterone. He's really good in recital where he often performs with the Gryphon trio. I really would like to see him in one of the big Russian bass roles.

    1. I'm impressed by your cyclopedic knowledge! Maybe he'll get into larger roles with smaller Toronto-area organizations?

    2. I have my doubts. There's a lot more $$$ singing a run of Monterones in NY or Houston than doing two or three performances with a fringe group in Toronto! Plus he has a bar to look after!


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