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Metropolitan Opera Review 2014-15- "Manon:" Vittorio Grigolo & Diana Damrau Have Irresistible Chemistry In Laurent Pelly's Intellectually & Emotionally Engrossing Production

First Posted: Mar 10, 2015 08:00 PM EDT
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Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau were at their best in the Met's new "Manon."

Photo : Ken Howard

In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera premiered Laurent Pelly's visionary production of Massenet's ever-popular "Manon."

Back then, this writer heaped tremendous praise on the production for its intellectual insight (an analysis that should be read to fully grasp this writer's adoration of the staging) and its ability to incorporate and even subvert Laura Mulvey's "male gaze" theory throughout the evening. Ranging from the opera's opening moments in which a quintet seeks out a meal from a hotel manager to calm their ravenous appetite to the end where the predating males (always dressed in black) are delivering the finishing blows to the titular character, this production showcases the dangers of a ravenous society always seeking to calm its basest needs.

In its revival, which premiered on March 9, the production was not only as fascinating as that first time but possibly filled with greater insight. Details, such as the fact the "predatory" females in St. Suplice are also wearing black in that scene, become clearer. The use of stairs in the opening act as a symbolic expression of Manon, like Icarus, reaching too high and eventually collapsing in the final act, is a masterclass in stage directing. Even the use of stairs and inclined ramps throughout every single act (the St. Suplice itself is on an incline), furthers this notion of an uneven world with danger throughout. It is reminiscent of Willy Decker's equally brilliant "La Traviata" production, which is also at the Met. So that should come as no surprise that this Manon is arguably one of the finer stage productions to come to the Met since the arrival of general manager Peter Gelb in 2006, and the revival has proven that it remains in that position. 

This time around, the Met audience got an opportunity to see two brilliant stars taking on the two central roles.

As the titular character, soprano Diana Damrau was clearly enjoying herself in every way imaginable. Her Manon was a teenage girl through and through, slowly showing signs of maturity as the drama ramped up but always seeming to regress to her more youthful impulses. Her opening aria "Je suis encore tout etourdie" set up the dazed and unstable nature of the young girl. Damrau's voice was at its most agile, rising to her vocal stratosphere with full volume before unexpectedly quieting down in a hurry. The effect was dizzying, emphasizing the character's effect on those around her. There was a sweetness in her duet with Des Grieux that hinted at some timidity, but by the end of the duet her voice soared matching the potent intensity of her co-star Vittorio Grigolo.

In the second Act, there was coyness but tremendous vulnerability in the subdued "Adieu, notre petite tableau." Every note in this aria was tenderly sung, almost whimpers that allowed the viewer to truly appreciate Manon's melancholic suffering at the thought of leaving Des Grieux. Of course, one would not be remiss to question the sincerity of her emotions upon watching this more "mature" Manon in the ensuing act in all her pomposity. During the famed recitative and minuet of this act, Damrau's voice and acting were brimming with bravura. She threw off the fiendish runs and high notes with ease and facility, her voice developing a harsher edge and highlighting a ferociousness in the character that the audience had yet to hear. She inciting the men around her throughout this act, a series of trills blew them backward like a sorceress casting a spell. But in the final moments of the act, in a dramatic meeting with Des Grieux's father, Damrau's Manon became more vulnerable, at times delivering her exchanges with hesitancy; it was as if her emotional awakening had, at least for the moment, erased her more capricious and superficial nature and replaced with the timid girl from the opening.

And then came the famed St. Suplice scene. Her seduction of Des Grieux was a fascinating mixture of sincerity and calculated predation. She threw herself on the floor and sang "N'est-ce plus ma main" with the thinnest thread of voice, pulling the listener in and demanding attention. Yet every note was stretched and savored by her and as the volume and intensity built from phrase to phrase, one could feel the emotional core of the character finally coming to the forefront. Of course, when she realized that she was not getting what she wanted through emotional sincerity, she struck some other strategies, albeit more sexual ones that eventually grabbed their intended effect. Not only did she touch Grigolo's Des Grieux in not so subtle manners, but her voice poured out with the ferociousness and vigor of the Cours-la-Reine scene. At the climax of it all she threw herself on the bed and started to slowly strip, prompting a highly sensual repartee with her stage partner.

Act 4 saw the return of the vain and superficial Manon, using all of her physical and vocal charms to win her man and the audience. Manon gets a brief solo passage in this act in which she celebrates, not for the first time, the ecstasy of youth and her own hedonistic outlook. Damrau engaged this moment with the full range of her voice, climaxing into visceral high notes above the chorus and orchestra. At the climax of the scene, in which Manon gets her comeuppance, one could finally see the change come over Damrau's face as she finally realized her mistakes and saw her doomed fate arrive to take away the "youth" she said would not last forever. It was a quick change, but Damrau's booming voice in these final passages made it clear that this women was truly suffering her plight.

In the final Act, Damrau's voice retained a subdued quality, bringing the character full-circle. There were moments where she unleashed her sound to its fullest potential throughout the final duet, but these instances were rare, highlighting the character's inevitable death. Her final "Et c'est la l'histoire de Manon Lescaut," was not slowly and labored as it is often showcased but was direct, still hinting at the character's vigor which has just been suddenly shutdown. Damrau is indisputably one of the greatest singing actresses in the world, and on this night she upheld that notion with a complex and fascinating portrayal of the iconic role.

As her lover Grigolo was at the top of his game in arguably his finest role at the Met Opera. Just a few weeks ago he delivered a virtuosic portrayal of the title character in Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann." And while that portrayal was fascinating for its subtly development, his Des Grieux was riveting from the very moment to that very ending which will forever remain unforgettable to anyone in attendance.

From his opening lines in which he rushes about looking for his escape to see his father, Grigolo's voice was filled with ardor, and his acting was unstoppably energetic. For those who have witnessed the Italian tenor in action before, there is seemingly no vocal task too difficult (or difficult at all for that matter) for Grigolo. Every passage is delivered with his signature brilliant sound. His brilliant technique allows him to engage in nuanced phrasing that fewer others would ever risk. Take his delivery of Des Grieux's tender dream in Act 2. At the climax of the work, Des Grieux gets a breathtaking high note that is always sung pianissimo. Grigolo's voice at this moment rose to the quietest of sounds and simply hung, disembodied in the hall for a few breathtaking moments. But then the singer suddenly made a slow crescendo, his voice growing in strength and color until it was as loud as could be. It added a sense of urgency to Des Grieux's pained thoughts of living without his beloved Manon and made his final "Non! La sera notre vie, si tu le veux, o Manon!" more desperate and heartbreaking.

The St. Suplice scene is the dramatic turning point of the work and for Des Grieux it features two major moments. The first is his iconic aria "A fuyez, deuce image" in which Des Grieux battles his internal desires and external reality. Grigolo's voice exploded with volcanic passion at the numerous climaxes of this aria, his voice rising and blasting through the orchestra and washing the auditorium with luscious sound. And in the ensuing duet, his voice grew weaker and weaker as he gave into his passions, the final outburst a reminder of his fiery nature. Physically, Grigolo's acting throughout this scene was just as fascinating as his singing. Throughout the aria, he grabbed hold of columns and ran about, evading the image of Manon. When the real Manon actually appeared before him, he turned away from her, ran for the columns for cover, protecting himself from her. But unlike the close of his aria, where he could run away, he could was trapped emotionally by the woman before him. Even though he refused to look at her, one could see him slowly yielding to her pleads, and in his final moments he let himself go. She ripped open his shirt, and he finished the job, taking off the rest of his robe, grabbing her and throwing her to the bed in sexual ecstasy.

And yet for all his strength at the end of this scene, Grigolo's Des Grieux was a tortured man in the fourth act. Again he looked away from Manon as he pleaded with her to leave. But as was visible in the St. Suplice, he was weak to her charms and especially alert to defending his pride once it was questioned. At the climax of the scene, Grigolo's Des Grieux showcased a violent nature that had never been in evidence as he blasted the vile Guillot, his singing growing in strength and volume throughout. And yet Grigolo always retained control. In the final Act, his singing sustained it beauty but showcased a purity that matched Damrau's gentle singing.

And then came that final moment. Right after her final moment and last breath, Grigolo's Des Grieux pounced on the corpse of his beloved and unleashed the most painful cry you might ever hear at an opera. And it was not just a brief scream of pain, but a sustained one that shook any listener to the core. It was animalistic, violent and yet full of horrid pain. It is one of those goosebump-inducing moments that likely never fades from memory.

Those two alone made the night memorable. But when you throw in the luxurious supporting cast, you have one of the greatest nights of the season.

In the role of Lescaut was Russell Braun. His baritone voice was confident, strong and his phrasing polished. He made Manon's cousin a hot-tempered man that was willing to pick a fight at any moment. He relished the luxuries afforded him in Act 3's Cours-la-Reine scene and flirted with a plethora of women surrounding him. His exchange with Manon in the opening act, during which he asks her to behave herself while he heads to lose his money at a gambling table, was among the more comic moments of the night. He always seemed to turn around just as she crept up the ladder, putting down her every attempt at "crossing the line."

As Guillot, Christophe Mortagne was hateful and yet such a joy to watch. He really embraced Guillot's pathetic nature, eliciting most of the audience laughs on the evening, but when he came for his vengeance, his pointed diction and voice made him despicable. This is not a character one grows to love, but it is surely one that is enjoyable to watch on stage.

As Count des Grieux, Nicolas Teste showcased a rich bass voice that resonated above the crowded in the climactic scene at the Hotel de Transylvanie. He has two exchanges with Manon and Des Grieux in Act 3, each providing essential turning points for the other character. In his dialogue with Manon, he remained rather conservative toward her, despite her every attempt to get answers from him. And yet, his eyes could not look away from her, as the Count himself notes that she is charming and understands her allure. It added to the humanity of a character that could simply come off as a stoic and implacable. He was far more sarcastic in his repartee with Grigolo's Des Grieux, softening his voice as he pleaded that he reconsider his decision to become a priest. It contrasted heavily with his imposing figure in the final act but saved the character from coming off as a complete tyrant.

Dwayne Croft was a confident and relaxed De Bretigny. Mireille Asselin, Cecelia Hall and Maya Lahyani embraced the joie-de-vivre of their characters, Pousette, Javotte and Rosette.

At the pit's helm was Emmanuel Villaume who guided the orchestra through a confident account of Massenet's score. There were a few hairy moments, particularly during Des Grieux's second act dream when it seemed that singer and orchestra were not always together, but that did not get in the way of the buoyant energy that he got from the orchestra during the work's prelude and the opening to the Cours-la-Reine scene. The ballet with its "baroque" music was stylishly delivered with its delicate and detached phrasing. The opening to Act 2 was also memorable in Guillaume's attention to the contrast and interplay between the deeper vocal lines in the strings (Des Grieux's leitmotif) with the sprightly violins (a reference to Manon's nature). Arguably his finest moments came in the St. Suplice scene where the orchestra was a bubbling cauldron ready to explode with energy. It was this energy that propelled both Damrau and Grigolo to some of their finest singing on the night and the orchestra only added to this most iconic of scenes.

The 2014-15 season at the Met is fast approaching its end. And yet, it still has a tremendous amount left in store, starting with this "Manon," which is undoubtedly one of the finest productions of the season. Unfortunately the dramatic genius of Grigolo, Damrau, Villaume and the supporting cast will not be immortalized on the Met's Live in HD series (a true shame), so audiences looking to witness this irresistible chemistry onstage will have to flock to the theater before it ends its run March 28. And there is no doubt that they should. This is as unforgettable as it gets.

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