The story of Manon Lescaut is the classic saga of a young woman torn between love and money. It has inspired several operas and the Met returned its production of Massenet's lovely and popular Manon to the stage last night with a sterling cast led by Diana Damrau in the title role and Vittorio Grigolo as her one true love, Chevalier des Grieux.
Damrau, known mostly for her coloratura and Mozart roles, sails through the soaring dramatic passages of Massenet's luscious score. But it is the delicacy and sheer beauty of her heartbreaking pianissimo lines, especially in her Act 2 "Adieu, notre petite table," that evokes real sympathy for a character with undeniable gold-digger tendencies.
Grigolo, the dashing Italian tenor who scored a big success at the Met in the title role of "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" earlier this year, sings with passionate intensity throughout, his rich voice full of fervor, and his second-act Dream aria ("En fermant les yeux") a show-stopping moment.
In fact, Damrau and Grigolo make a fine pair of lovers, with some real chemistry that comes through in their several duets. Manon's third-act seduction of des Grieux as he is about to take religious vows (and delivering a zealous "Ah! Fuyez, douce image") is sultry, and their final death scene is a tender reprise of their ill-fated love affair.
Manon is Massenet's most popular opera and it is the most frequently performed operatic version of Abbe Prevost's novel, though Puccini's Manon Lescaut, which will have a new production next season at the Met, runs a close second.
The opera opens at an inn in town of Amiens where Lescaut is waiting for his 15-year-old cousin Manon to arrive by coach on her way from the small village of her birth to a convent. When she does, she is full of wonder at all the sights she has seen and recounts them in the lovely "Je suis encore tout etourdie" aria, liltingly and enchantingly sung by Damrau.
The bright lights of Amiens are alluring, and Manon, dressed in a country skirt, blouse, and jacket and wearing a straw hat, is captivated by the fine gowns the ladies at the inn are wearing. It's a variation of the age-old question: how are you going to keep 'em in the convent once they've seen Amiens?
But Manon is destined for brighter lights than Amiens. She rebuffs a rich old roue named Guillot who tries to hit on her at the inn, but when the handsome young des Grieux shows up on his way home to his father's estate, it's love at first sight and she runs away to Paris with him.
When next we see Manon, she and des Grieux are living in a garret, money running out, and des Grieux talking marriage. Opportunity knocks for Manon when de Bretigny, another rich man from the Amiens inn, proposes she come live with him. The prospect of a life of luxury and ease are too much and she leaves des Grieux, who is about to be kidnapped anyway by agents of his father, the Count.
But riches and all of Paris at her feet do not prevent Manon from feeling pangs of jealousy when she learns des Grieux is about to take monastic vows. She tracks him down at the church of St. Suplice and convinces him to run away with her one more time.
Once again, money begins to run low and Manon persuades des Grieux to go with her to a gambling club and risk all they've got left in a card game with Guillot. Des Grieux wins but Guillot accuses them both of cheating. Des Grieux's father gets him out but Manon ends up in jail and is about to be deported. Des Grieux tries to arrange her escape, but she has become ill in prison and dies in his arms on the road to Le Havre.
While these Manon performances are musically captivating -- Emmanuel Villaume leads a robust reading of the score from the magnificent Met Orchestra and fine all-round cast, especially Dwayne Croft's de Bretigny, join Damrau and Grigolo -- the 2012 Met production by Laurent Pelly is not without problems.
The time has been moved forward 100 years from the original late 18th century, though apart from the costumes you might not recognize the settings as Belle Epoque. The opening act is a doll-house configuration of Amiens, and the second act Parisian garret looks more like a cold-water walkup on the Lower East Side and is pushed so far upstage that the audience seems to be viewing the action from across the street. Even the final act's highway to Le Havre more resembles a mean street in some deserted big-city ghetto.
Some of the stage directions are so broadly histrionic they are almost risible. In the fourth-act Hotel de Transylvanie, which looks more like an underground speakeasy than a fashionable gambling club, Manon falls to the floor and begins scooping up banknotes, greedily clutching them to her breast, when the gendarmes arrive.
But the main attraction is still Massenet's wonderfully Romantic score and the Met has provided two bravura lovers in Damrau and Grigolo and a strong roster of singers to go with them to overcome any inconsistencies of the staging.