Great Cast Saves Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut’

February 21, 2016 Updated: February 22, 2016

NEW YORK—The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Manon Lescaut” ran into a potential snag when tenor Jonas Kaufmann canceled for health reasons. Fortunately, tenor star Roberto Alagna stepped in and generated sparks with soprano Kristine Opolais. Alagna had learned the role about 10 years ago but, in fact, has never before performed it onstage.

“Manon Lescaut,” which was first performed in 1893, was Puccini’s breakthrough work, after which George Bernard Shaw hailed him as the successor to Verdi. Puccini was not intimidated by the fact that the Abbé Prévost novel “L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” had already been turned into a popular opera by Jules Massenet. Puccini said that his own version would sound more Italian, and he was right, although the two operas remain about equally popular.

Kristine Opolais in the title role and Massimo Cavalletti as Lescaut in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut". Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Kristine Opolais in the title role and Massimo Cavalletti as her brother Lescaut in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

The director, Sir Richard Eyre, has described the new production as a film noir approach and moved the action to France during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s.

The opera begins in the town square of Amiens. Des Grieux is hanging around with a friend, when he spots Manon. The young woman’s father is sending her to a convent, and her soldier brother is going to accompany her.

Meanwhile, wealthy, old tax collector Geronte plans to abduct Manon with the help of her corrupt brother. Des Grieux foils the two and runs off to Paris with the wayward schoolgirl. Her brother assures Geronte that Manon will not stay for long with the impoverished des Grieux.

When the second act begins, Manon has already left des Grieux for a life of privilege with Geronte. She is bored, and when des Grieux appears, their passion is rekindled. Geronte catches them together and has Manon arrested.

Kristine Opolais in the title role of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut". Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Kristine Opolais as Manon Lescaut. (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

In the third act, Manon is a prisoner in Le Havre. Her brother arranges for her to meet with des Grieux while trying to arrange for her escape. The plan falls through, and Manon is among the female prisoners being deported to Louisiana. Des Grieux goes along as a crew member.

The final act takes place in “the vast desert outside New Orleans.” (Puccini and his librettists didn’t have much grasp of geography.) She dies of thirst and exhaustion, proclaiming her love for des Grieux.

Soprano Kristine Opolais has the blonde bombshell look of a 1940s movie star like Virginia Mayo. At the same time, her singing is beautiful and her acting convincing.

From his “Donna non vidi mai” in the first act to the final love duet, Alagna delivered a world-class performance. Through all the incongruities of the opera’s plot and the idiosyncrasies of this production, the two of them were a convincing couple, dramatically and vocally.

The opera also benefited from the baritones Brindley Sherratt as Geronte and Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother. Tenor Zach Borichevsky makes a promising debut as des Grieux’s student friend Edmondo.

Kristine Opolais in the title role and Roberto Alagna as des Grieux in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut". Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Lovers Manon (Kristine Opolais) and des Grieux (Roberto Alagna) in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” (Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

As for Eyre’s conception of “Manon Lescaut,” the idea of presenting it as a film noir is not outlandish (though it would be for Massenet’s more genteel opera). However, moving the action to the Nazi occupation doesn’t make much sense. Would the German soldiers rush to do the bidding of a French tax collector? Perhaps. But the idea of the Nazis deporting prisoners to the United States in wartime is utterly absurd.

Several of Rob Howell’s sets dwarf the action with very high staircases. The last act, which is supposed to take place in a desert, looks more like a junkyard. Fortunately, the high-voltage stars divert the audience’s attention from the weaknesses of the production.

Conductor Fabio Luisi and the Met orchestra give an idiomatic rendition of the score.

The Saturday, March 5, matinee performance of “Manon Lescaut” will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met’s Live in HD series.

‘Manon Lescaut’
Metropolitan Opera
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org 
Closes: March 11

 Barry Basis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.