Metropolitan Opera 2019-20 Review: Manon
Lisette Oropesa & Michael Fabiano Shine In Laurent Pelly’s Plunge Into The Male GazeBy David Salazar
(Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera)
In the current social climate of today, Laurent Pelly’s vision for “Manon,” which premiered at the Met Opera back in 2012, remains as relevant as ever. And with top notch performers in the leading roles, the performance on Sept. 24, 2019, allowed this vision to rise to the top.
The Male Gaze
Back in 1975 Laura Mulvey developed the feminist theory of the “Male Gaze” which purports that works of art are expressed to appeal to the perspective of the heterosexual male. Mulvey asserted that most classic Hollywood Cinema takes this stance and in doing so we get the ideas of voyeurism, fetishism, and objectification of women for male pleasure. Mulvey supported this notion by stating that the majority of filmmakers of the time were male and hence the voyeuristic gaze of the camera was male.
But those who know the world of opera and the current millieu would immediately recognize that Mulvey’s theory undeniably correlate it with opera itself with a standard repertory dominated by male composers with a never ending list of suffering heroines that fall victims to male dominance. The story of “Manon” undeniably fits this mold and Pelly furthers the themes of the male gaze in his conception.
The opera initiates with Guillot, de Bretigny, Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette all heading out to dinner. A lot is made of what they will be eating, putting the opera’s main theme into play: society’s ravenous and insatiable appetite. In the case of this work, and especially as highlighted by Pelly, the predators are men and they crave women.
This concept comes fully to light just moments after the quintet enters the Inn and a group of men clad in black suits hover at the very top of the set’s structure, looming like vultures at what the new arrivals will bring. Meanwhile, women appear through small windows in the sides of the buildings, appearing as prisoners.
Manon, of course, becomes the central target for the remainder of the work with Guillot making rather intense advances on her during their first encounter. When she goes looking for her cousin upon arrival, the aforementioned men loom over her, tempting her to come with them; there is a sense of danger in this moment, with the tension ceasing when Lescaut arrives. But even he proves problematic, abandoning Manon at the station so he can get drunk.
As Act two commences, the set is made up of a staircase leading to a tiny studio where the young lovers reside. But the biggest impact of this curtain raise is the men in black looking up at the terrace, ever a menacing presence. These men return in the first scene of the third Act where the very objectification of women is furthered. Prior to Manon’s arrival, a group of women are put on full display downstage to not only the men, but the audience; Pelly essentially imposes the effect male gaze on the audience in the most direct manner. The men themselves walk about as if window-shopping for the women. Later in the scene, ballerinas are put on display, supposedly for Manon’s pleasure, but as she claims she sees “nothing.” Instead the pleasure is for the men to enjoy and they in fact do so as they forcibly carry off the ballerinas against their wishes.
The shady group of men return one last time in the opera’s final act, this time to beat up on Manon before leaving her for dead.
The women in the Saint-Suplice scene are all dressed in black, connecting them with the group of men. They also stare and dream about the young Des Grieux’s looks and nobility, in a not so subtle suggestion of their own desires. Of course, Manon, who unlike those women actually acts on her desires, comes in a few moments later and wins back Des Grieux. As portrayed in this production, she is the woman that knows how to wade this world of male domination to survive and get what she wants. And she manages this all the way through the fourth act until male power is used to destroy her. Unsurprisingly (especially in today’s world), the man who overpowers her is the one who does so because he could never have her – Guillot. It brings about the opera’s main concept with regards to Manon’s tragedy – powerful men, when they get or don’t get enough of what they want from women, discard them.
Pelly’s vision is substantiated by the Joël Adam’s contrasted costuming, with the men all looking the same and the women full of lush and ornate dresses. Chantal Thomas’ set design is spare, but every single scene boasts a staircase that emphasizes the power and control or isolation of certain characters at distinct moments; it furthers the sense of not only class structure but gender imbalance, especially when the men are often placed in favored positions throughout the set. Saint-Suplice, the only scene without a staircase, is built on an incline, to cement this idea of an unbalanced world.
Despite the genuine brilliance of the production and its conception, it must be noted that on opening night there was a general lack of energy and coordination in many of the scenes. In other iterations, the women open the windows in Act one in a coordinated fashion, enhancing the effect in the moment. But on this evening, everyone did it randomly, perhaps diminishing the stylization, but also making this previously comic moment ineffective. Some of the choreographed movements for the main actors, particularly during the Act one Manon-Des Grieux scene, seemed a bit forced and unmotivated; why do they hold themselves up against the far wall and then run to the front of the stage again? The opening of the card game in Act four was the epitome of lagging energy with a general lack of visual variety or even movement; it looked like a pretty boring card night for those involved with the players seemingly going through the motions.
Many of the issues likely came from the pit, where maestro Maurizio Benini proved an odd and ultimately unsatisfactory choice for the Massenet score. Puccini might have hinted at the superficiality of “Powder and Minuets,” but “Manon” is nothing if not a lush romantic score full of nuance and energy that requires a conductor who can bring both. Benini, a bel canto specialist, approached the score as if it were an early Verdi or Donizetti opera, full of muscularity and bravado, but lacking in delicacy.
The brass and percussion was always at the forefront of every orchestral forte, no matter what the emotion of the scene. In this sense, the opening notes of the opera and its final coda had the same orchestral texture and sound; one might argue that the joyful and parade-like moments in the score, such as the opening and Cours de la Reine, could benefit from an Italianate approach, but the dramatic explosions in the opera benefit from a less banda-like sound and more balancing between strings and winds, with the former adding aural tension and core to the sound.
Balance with the solo ensembles thus proved a bit sloppy as well. Perhaps the most noticeable of these moments was the Act two quartet between Manon, Des Grieux, Lescaut, and De Brétigny. The passage is complex as it is with two different actions unfolding for the audience at the same time. The singers and the orchestra all seemed to be on their own throughout the passage and Benini’s decision to pump up the volume on the orchestra made the moment sound unbalanced and messy.
It didn’t help that Benini’s tempi were also on the fast side. It was a four-hour evening, so one definitely understands the directive to move the opera along, but in doing so, the maestro and the orchestra often pushed the singers uncomfortably. This was most noticeable in Manon’s solo right before the Act three, scene two duet with Des Grieux; there were times in “Ah fuyez” where Benini seemed to be pushing tenor Michael Fabiano to move faster as well. The French horn accompaniment during “Comme l’oiseau qui suit en tous lieux le printemps” also sounded completely divorced from Fabiano’s line, the entire passage never quite coalescing.
In sum, this was far from Benini’s finest moment (and he’s had a fair share of them in the bel canto repertory). That said, there were undeniably moments where the sense of drive did allow for strong dramatic insight, particularly with regards to Lisette Oropesa’s interpretation of Manon.
Suave & Elegant Manon
Speaking of Lisette Oropesa, she had a major success in her first Met “Manon.” The title role is a mammoth undertaking and has proven a touchstone role for many famed divas of the past. Moreover, Pelly’s production requires a singer who can also dominate as an actress, navigating the complex world that the director created for the opera and character.
There is no denying Oropesa’s vocal purity and assurance and she wove an elegant legato line throughout “Je suis encore tout étourdie,” with the high A naturals at the apex of main melody statement gleaming. It was one of the few times where the speedier tempi worked well with Oropesa’s fierce coloratura, the unpronounced rallentandoes, and even the breezy take on the sixteenth note descents on “Pardonez à mon bavardage” allowing for a portrayal of Manon as a hurricane of energy ready to be unleashed.
We eventually saw that energy unleashed during the third Act scene where Manon takes centerstage, with Oropesa launching one virtuosic display after another. Again, the strict adherence to tempo in “Je march sur tous les Chemins” was effective as it allowed the expansive passages a sense of direction and also proved more effective when Oropesa did take time for the rallentandoes layered throughout; in this particular passage, she managed a sense of ebb and flow in the line that matched Manon’s own sense of playfulness onstage with the men following her around. She capped the entire section with a fiery coloratura run to a high D natural before launching into the famed Gavotte.
This passage was another example of vocal finesse with the soprano singing the opening G to D interval with a suave portamento followed by bright staccato and nimble phrasing. The high B natural eighth notes before the fermata on “Aimons” were a bit harsh, but it proved the only moments in the entire passage that was anything but refinement. She retained the same elegance throughout the aria capping with a scalar ascent to a high D that rode over the chorus.
She displayed a similar vibrancy in the fourth act’s “Chanter, aimer, sont douces choses,” though the choral ensemble and orchestra tended to overpower her in the forte moments; nonetheless she managed to blast through the ensemble on a climactic final high C.
In more dramatic moments, Oropesa’s attention to detail was equally mesmeric. She sang a beautifully subdued and poignant “Allons! Il le faut,” building up the opening passage to a thunderous high B flat before slowly diminuendoing the remainder of the passage all the way to a hushed piano sound on “Adieu, notre petite table” where she remained for the entirety of the passage. It was arguably Oropesa’s most introspective moment in the entire evening, and one could sense Manon holding back the pain of her emotions as if to rationalize her actions.
“Pardonnez moi, Dieu de toute puissance” felt, as noted, a bit rushed (the Andante religioso felt more Allegro) and it was here where Manon’s conflict felt a bit undermined as a result, though she managed a plush and desperate high B natural in the middle of it. Her work in the duet with Michael Fabiano was among their best work together on the night, especially with Oropesa using all of her vocal and physical resources to win him over. She rarely took her eyes off of him and you could sense his trying to resist as best as he could. “N’est ce plus ma main,” was delivered with a tender piano sound, the phrases again ebbing and flowing with sensual playfulness; this is one of the moments where Benini seemed to allow Oropesa greater bandwidth with tempi and the soprano certainly worked within those parameters beautifully, keeping the listener completely fixed on her. In the final moments of the duet she threw herself to the bed in open arms, a gesture that Fabiano’s Des Grieux could no longer resist. With him by her side, she ripped his shirt open as the two savored on a high B flat that rang over the orchestra.
The power of her voice was arguably best represented in the concertato at the end of Act four where she was prominently audible over the massive ensemble and the final Act with its frequent vocal outbursts. On the whole, Oropesa’s voice is a crystalline gem with a wide range of color and expressive resources that she used to bring this challenging role to life.
Not to be overlooked, however, was Michael Fabiano as Des Grieux. His instrument at times seems like the polar opposite of Oropesa’s, making them, superficially, an odd match for this role. Hers is slender and nimble where his is heavier and grainier in sound. And while the two didn’t quite connect vocally in the early instances of the opera, with the tenor often overpowering Oropesa when they sang together, by the end of the night, they were performing chamber music together.
Des Grieux is an excellent vocal match for the American tenor with its intensity of passion and finesse. Every time that Massenet demanded a forte outburst into the upper stratosphere, the tenor was more than up to the task, his sound blasting intensely into the Met auditorium. The rawness of his sound is undeniably exhilarating, more so because you get the sense that Fabiano, despite retaining control of his instrument, is testing those limits at every move; where other singers play it safe, the added tension adds to the realism of the moment.
Nowhere was this most visible than in the famed aria “Ah, fuyez douce image,” with the tenor tasked to sing many of the passages in the higher end of his range. The aria itself opens on a G natural above the staff ascending to a high A flat in the first phrase. By the first fortissimo, the tenor is tasked with singing two high B flats, an A flat over a thunderous orchestra. And this is where Fabiano’s vocal prowess shone. The recap of the aria was similarly potent, though perhaps the most vibrant moment of the passage was the crescendo on the F natural on “mon coeur.”
In the ensuing duet, Fabiano managed to ramp up the vocal intensity, providing a great counterpoint to Oropesa’s more poised vocal approach; this provided the scene with great musical tension, before eventually bringing them together for a potent finish. In the fourth Act, Fabiano shone during “Manon, sphinx étonnant,” riding the phrases all the way up to a fortissimo high B flat; the reprisal of the opening phrase, this time accompanied by Manon and Lescaut, was even more intense.
It must be noted that as the night wore on, Fabiano’s upper range, instead of becoming increasingly fatigued by the constant heavy duty, seemed to grow and build on itself. His final outburst at the apex of the famed concertato, “O douleur! L’avenir nous sépare” was full of impassioned desperation, the tenor throwing caution to the winds and letting every ounce of pain spring forth from his vocal expression. He was similarly intense during the opera’s closing duet.
That said, Fabiano also displayed some truly glorious soft singing throughout the evening, best exemplified in his Act two aria. With gentle piano sound, his voice glided over the crystalline string accompaniment with a sense of freedom and expansiveness. He retained the hushed timbre throughout, rising up to a glorious high A natural on “Il y faut encore.”
The remaining cast members all managed solid portrayals of their respective characters with the trio of Maya Lahyani, Jacqueline Echols, and Laura Krumm having a blast as Rosette, Pousette, and Javotte, respectively. Their opening ensemble in the very first scene was a musical highlight with the three perfectly in synch as they goaded Guillot.
Carlo Bosi, as Guillot, has really solidified himself as a top-notch character singer, stealing scenes last season in “La Fanciulla del West” and did much of the same here. His lecherous, snake-like behavior toward Manon was both pathetic and frightening, playing him up as a man so fed up with rejection that he resorts to the biggest weapon he has – power and money.
Kwangchul Youn also delivered a robust and authoritative interpretation of the Comte des Grieux, his bass booming in the opening lines of the concertato.
But if anyone deserves special mention, it is baritone Artur Rucinski as Lescaut. In other performances of the opera, it can be easy to overlook Lescaut in the context of the two main lovers, but the Polish singer made his presence not only known, but truly felt. Not only did he create a complex portrayal of Lescaut as well-meaning but irresponsible figure to Manon, but he delivered an elegant vocal performance that hopefully will lead to more prominent roles at the Met (“Eugene Onegin” anyone?). His upper range was particularly resplendent.
He bullied Guillot viciously in their first interaction before launching into a playful but gentile “Ne bronchez pas,” the voice bright and floating despite the closed vowel on E natural on “gentile.” The forward-moving tempo gave the aria subdued vivacity, something often lacking in other renditions. By the time his voice was fully warmed up for his Act three “Choisir! Et pourquoi?” the sound rang into the hall, with the baritone’s top range at the its best.
Massenet’s “Manon” is a masterpiece and this staging, with a vibrant young cast, was a strong reminder of that fact. Alongside “Porgy and Bess,” this is the second straight must-see show at the Met in 2019-20. Things are off to a good start on the Met stage.