I saw the Met’s Manon Lescaut at the end of November, made a few notes with the intent of posting a review then… and got busy with more pressing theater gig deadlines. Returning to it now, I’ve had a chance to think more about the Anna Netrebko phenomenon.
This was my first time seeing director Richard Eyre’s much-criticized production in the house, though last year I watched the HD telecast. The show is even less effective in person, though the Act II looks fun, at least—an apartment as grandly garish as Napoleon’s tomb, with an improbably long staircase allowing for some snazzy entrances and exits. But Acts III and IV are from hunger, the first with its tacky fake ship, and the latter truly hideous—what’s meant to be an isolated area outside New Orleans looks like a contemporary urban ruin repurposed as a skateboard park.
Much of the negative reaction to Eyre’s work centered on his updating—to the 1940s, the period of Nazi occupation. It doesn’t make much sense, though it lends the title role a Noir-ish chic. But the bigger problem is that it’s a concept unfettered with any concern about details.
I’ve admired Eyre’s work as a theater director—notably in a terrific Hedda Gabler at the Almeida, where despite a superficially traditional setting, he and his actors magically lit up the play, reinventing it from within. That sense of life is precisely what’s missing here. Apart from the basic look, this could be the kind of stand-and-pose production that the Met seems to be working to rid themselves of. There’s a notable lack of logic, as when the prostitutes en route to exile include some in prison garb alongside others in their, um, street clothes, who look they were rousted merely hours before.
Musically, this Manon Lescaut was competently conducted by Marco Armiliato, with supporting performances that ranged from very good (Christopher Maltman’s characterful and vocally focused Lescaut; Brindley Sherratt’s George Sanders-like Geronte) to routine. As Des Grieux, tenor Marcelo Álvarez emoted unspecifically but basically sang well, with a handsome, Met-sized tenor that shaded flat on top.
In other words, this was in most ways a fair-to-middling revival. It was Anna Netrebko in the title role that made it An Event.
There’s no doubt that she’s a star and a presence, though audibly and visually older than in her first successes. Today’s Anna is still gorgeous, but it’s the voluptuous, experienced glamour of middle-age (think Elizabeth Taylor in The VIPS)—she’s no closer to the convent-bound young woman than many other sopranos who’ve taken on the role.
Vocally, her tone retains the irresistible dark-but-brilliant color; it has grown in fullness, especially in the mid- and lower-range, but there’s correspondingly less agility. That doesn’t matter much here, though “L’ora, o tirsi” was a curious combination of accomplishment (one or two fine trills) and fumbling. Not every note was pitched dead-center, a problem throughout the first and second acts. Her vibrato is also looser—I’ve heard it before on recordings, but this was the first time it was evident in the more forgiving acoustic of the house.
But Netrebko rose superbly to the challenge of the final act, which was often magnificently sung, and very touching. There’s a sincerity and emotional generosity to her work that I think isn’t often found alongside the kind of glamour she projects—it’s a winning combination.
What it is not, I think, is acting. The problem with Netrebko’s Manon is, to a lesser extent, the same as with Eyre’s production—it’s painted with a broad brush, without the nuances that create a character. Individual words and moments rarely make an impact. Even in the final “Sola, perduta, abbandonata, the three opening words that have devastating and specific meanings have nothing in her reading to differentiate them. The Film Noir frame suits her—with her flinty good looks, Netrebko could be opera’s Jane Greer—but her kittenishness is pure camp. (Sometimes she reminded me of Ann-Margret as Kim McAfee—surely the most lascivious, predatory, adult teenager ever!)
If Netrebko’s career is its own three act play, we’re now in squarely Act II. Her lyric/coloratura days are done; she’s very much a mature leading woman. Where we’re heading in Act III is an open question. The luster and amplitude of her sound are a source of wonder; the widening vibrato is, frankly, worrying. But more than anything, I’d like to see the next stage bring a deeper commitment to realizing the dramatic potential of her stage roles.