Notes and Editorial Reviews
Recorded at Barcelona's Teatro del Liceu over three evenings in June, 2007, David McVicar's take on Massenet's Manon, though it looks entirely traditional at first, is positively veristic with abundant hints of Puccini-era Manon. There is little above suspicion about our leading lady or her world. When we first meet her, she is indeed innocent looking, particularly in the person of Natalie Dessay--slight, girlish, practically wispy and dressed in mannish clothes. But when Lescaut greets her with a full embrace and a long, lascivious kiss on the lips, she looks a bit flustered, but nothing more. And given the atmosphere already on stage--which remains throughout--it's not surprising that incorruptibility is hard to come by.
Very effectively, the prelude features dancers wandering about the stage; in one formation or another they are omnipresent throughout. The single set (by Tanya McCallin, who also did the handsome period costumes) consists of three tiers in semi-circle, where spectators sit, chat, come and go, and observe the action during the opera. A huge trompe l'oeil curtain is visible behind the semi-circle, implying that there is a play-within-a-play going on, or at least that the main characters in the drama are worthy of gawking at. The crowd that watches varies from the 18th-century painted dandy to the hoi polloi; I'm not certain as to the implications, except that clearly Manon and her plight are something for the entertainment of others.
Guillot and de Bretigny are our worst notions of the shady rich; they are overly dressed and painted and we can practically smell too much cologne on their hankies. Each scene, played stage front, is minimally furnished but immediately lets us know where we are. Within the framework of his concept, McVicar is thoughtful and right-on: the characters, minor and major, move well; interactions are honest; the love--indeed, unbridled passion--of Des Grieux and Manon is never in doubt. But something of Massenet's story--and its early-18th-century feel--is lost in the realism.
This is not to say that it is not a story of a greedy girl, but in this production the women all seem to be for sale: the girls at the Inn are suspect, the Cours de la Reine scene would appear to be a place for women to peddle their wares, and there is open copulating and groping at the gambling tables at the Hotel Transylvanie. I guess poor Manon is doomed from the start to a life of thievery and degradation.
I had never thought of Abbé Prévost's story as an indictment of 18th-century France; it is a story of two lovers and the flaws in human beings. But McVicar sees it differently, and while it doesn't "spoil" the opera by any means, it alters the focus, with the shadiness and squalor somewhat intrusive and the story's innate sentimentality given short shrift.
Natalie Dessay embodies the character of Manon remarkably, even within this framework. With the girlishness never exaggerated, each movement seemingly spontaneous (about how many opera singers can that be said?), her love for Des Grieux sincere, her sadness in her "Adieu" absolutely believable, there seems to be no artifice. (By the end of the aria, she's curled in the fetal position on top of the table.) She turns coloratura into perfect peals of laughter absolutely organically in the first act; her Cours de la Reine scene is vocally properly dazzling. You want more voice in the St. Sulpice Scene--the tone is a bit thin for Manon's desperate utterances--but Dessay is so intelligent an artist that she makes it work with phrasing and dynamics. The Gambling Scene, however, really needs a heftier sound. Her voice seems to be blooming into a full lyric, and when it does, Manon will be her role, no doubt about it.
Her Des Grieux is Rolando Villazon. Here, just two months before he announced that he was going on hiatus for "health reasons", he sounds somewhat strained and he ducks a couple of high notes in the opera's fourth act. His ardor, musicianship, genius for phrasing, and sheer passion for what he does are unique among tenors today, but you cannot deny that some of his high notes are being delivered uncovered, and there is a rasp where there should be true power or velvet. His "Rêve" is stunning; "Ah! Fuyez" gives him great trouble. Still, open-throated, Puccini-esque singing aside, his is a stunning Des Grieux and he remains a superb actor.
As Lescaut, Manuel Lanza uses his mid-sized baritone well (although his French, particularly next to Dessay's, is dreadful) and is even more of a dirt-ball pimp in this production than usual. Samuel Ramey's Comte Des Grieux is authoritative, but the less said about the current state of his voice the better. Didier Henry's Bretigny is suitably grotesque for this viewpoint and he sings with strength. Marisa Martins, Anna Tobella, and Cristina Obregón sing the "ettes" as if they are major roles.
Conductor Victor Pablo Perez proves a worthy interpreter of Massenet's brand of sensuality, with the intimate scenes nicely caressed and the more active ones filled with excitement. Why he would want to present the ballet music in mid-Cours de la Reine is beyond me--Manon is already a long evening (the performance comes in at just under three hours) without this interruption. The Orchestra Simfònica of the Gran Teatre del Liceu plays handsomely.
As a bonus Virgin has added an hour-long documentary featuring David McVicar directing Dessay and Villazon, with particular emphasis on Dessay--and McVicar, who hurls himself around, explicating each nuance as if the singers were performing King Lear. They react and learn well and it's an entertaining experience. The four-page insert, devoid of notes, tracking points, or anything other than a full credits list, is very cheesy. Subtitles are in all major European languages and Catalan; sound is in all three possibilities. The picture is sharp and the direction for the small screen by François Roussillon is expert. This set's only DVD competition stars Renée Fleming and Marcelo Alvarez; both are in sumptuous voice and the production is both more appropriate and a feast for the eyes. But I find myself moved and fascinated far more by this new set, albeit oddly conceived by McVicar.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Manon by Jules Massenet
Didier Henry (Baritone),
Rolando Villazón (Tenor),
Manuel Lanza (Tenor),
Natalie Dessay (Soprano),
Samuel Ramey (Bass)
Victor Pablo Pérez
Barcelona Teatro Liceu Orchestra,
Barcelona Teatro Liceu Chorus
Written: 1883-1884; France
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