PBS Great Performances at the Met: ‘Manon’

The PBS Great Performances at the Met production of Jules Massenet’s 1884 “Manon” has gorgeous costumes, simple but effectively stylish sets and two attractive leads whose luscious voices blend to tug our hearts over this tragic love story.

The  French libretto (Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille) is based on an Abbé Prévost novel called “L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut.” The opera takes place when Louis XV (1715-1774) was the current king. His policies would eventually make him  unpopular and the influence of his mistress Madame de Pompadour weakened the financial situation of the monarchy. His grandson, Louis XVI would marry Marie Antoinette and support the American Revolution, but die at the guillotine in 1793

The opera begins in the courtyard of an inn with the beautiful people. Coming down the stairs to the courtyard, a noble named De Brétigny who with the elderly Minister of Finance Guillot are going to an inn for dinner with three young actresses.

A coach arrives from Arras to Amiens (75 miles north of Paris).  Amiens is about 35 miles from Arras. While the townspeople gather at the arrival of a coach in the inn’s courtyard, the passengers disembark in a confused jumble, fighting over the baggage and boxes, complaining about the rough journey.

From the crowd emerges one smiling face, Manon  (soprano Anna Netrebko). She is waiting for her cousin, but first meets with the lascivious Guillot who almost salivates over the prospect of this young beautiful innocent becoming his latest conquest. Lescaut (Paulo Szot), Manon’s cousin, comes just in time to prevent Guillot from tempting Manon.

Yet Lescaut while singing about protecting Manon and warning her to be careful wears a guardsman uniform that isn’t as crisp as one would want and he quickly proves to be a lax and lazy host. Imagine telling a young girl on the way to the convent to stay in a deserted courtyard as it grows darker so that he might skips out, running up the stairs and out of sight to gamble with his associates.

Sitting on her suitcase, Manon waits until her curiosity causes her to peer into the  inn’s windows. She admires the beautiful women, the actresses who are flirting with the old lecherous Guillot. She meets Chevalier des Grieux (Piotr Beczala) who is on his way to see his beloved father, but love strikes them hard.

The two impetuously decide to run away to Paris–he emphasizes that they’ll be together. She thinks mostly of Paris. They steal away in Guillot’s carriage.

In Act 2, they are set up in a modest apartment in Paris. Des Grieux is writing a letter asking his father for permission to marry Manon. Their class differences give him little hope and they obviously haven’t been chaste. De Brétigny pretending to be a friend and fellow guardsman, comes with Lescaut to speak with des Grieux. They pretend to support des Grieux who is earnest in his attempts to convince Lescaut that his intentions are honorable.

De Brétigny informs Manon that des Grieux’s father has arranged to have his son abducted. He offers her his protection. When the two men leave, Manon waivers between being faithful to des Grieux or giving into the glamorous life  de Brétigny offers.  In her heart, even as des Grieux sings about their happy life together under humble circumstances, she’s decided to go with de Brétigny. But when des Grieux is taken away, she has no choice and does feel regret.

In Act 3, Manon now has become a much feted mistress–well-dressed and re-united with Lescaut. Guillot still flirts with young actresses, but he hasn’t forgotten the slight from Manon and des Grieux. Des Grieux’s father, Comte, speaks with de Brétigny and Manon overhears that des Grieux has entered a seminary. Manon suddenly feels compelled to see her first love again and see if he still loves her.

In Act 4, Manon and des Grieux again run away but now des Grieux feels compelled to gain riches to support the kind of luxury that Manon craves and does so by gambling with disastrous results. His father intercedes to save him, but leaves Manon to her own fate.

In Act 5, Manon is going to be deported and Lescaut and des Grieux attempt to rescue her, but there will be no happy ending for the two.

This production is elegant–from Chantal Thomas’ scenic design to Laurent Pelly’s staging and costume design–and Netrebko convincingly transforms from a fresh-faced girl becoming somewhat intoxicated with the power of her beauty to a woman wanting a bit more to a person who finally recognizes the importance of love over wealth. Beczala glows with earnest love as des Grieux. Netrebko’s Manon is not inherently evil. It’s hard to fault her when fate intercedes and she takes the easy path. Remember, it was a time when love was often not a big consideration in the marriages of the nobility and class distinctions were strict enough to eventually cause the downfall of the French aristocracy with frightening bloody rage.

Manon airs on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances at the Met Sunday, August 5 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). In New York, THIRTEEN will broadcast the opera at 12:30 p.m. that day, with a primetime encore the following Thursday, August 9 at 8:30 p.m.

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