Covent Garden is on a high forgetting the daft Aida there have been three outright winners in Turco in Italia, La Fille du Regiment and now Manon. Bravo, Pappano, bravo Padmore. Keep it up!
In his early forties Jules Massenet added to his earlier success with Manon, seventy performances in the first year, 1884, Paris. He had built his reputation on rather lachrymose religious dramas although he once said he didn’t believe in all that ‘creeping-Jesus stuff’. Funnily enough that was the public’s name for him. Apparently each night of a performance he crept round to the box-office to check the takings. The takings were good for the most part for twenty years. Until Pelléas came along and tastes changed.
Manon’s world is the second empire in this sumptuous no expense-spared production by Laurent Pelly (the cost fortunately shared with three other opera houses). The magnificent costumes and sets breathe the very atmosphere of the demi-monde, Renoir and the grandes horizontales. Manon herself is a “mixture of demureness and vivacity, of serious affection but meretricious preferment” – as Kobbé’s Opera Book succinctly puts it. She ruins the religiously – inclined Des Grieux but dies repenting in his arms.
Darling of the operatic public, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko really takes the stage in the title role, fine voice (perhaps a little too powerful sometimes), but she bulls eyes with her acting, her beauty and the way she wears Pelly’s gorgeous gowns like a denizen of the catwalk. Massenet had many good qualities as a composer, not the least his ability to characterize his heroines with a skilful mix of short notes and winsome harmonies. What easy charm!
As the not yet frocked priest Vittorio Grigolo, from Arezzo, was a worthy foil/lover for this Manon, ardent, impulsive, although he didn’t make one forget the less ardent but more elegant Heddle Nash, anymore than Netrebko made one forget the superior vocalism of Victoria de los Angeles but Grigolo gave a real performance. And so did his stage father, the excellent Christof Fischesser (German for fish eater!), as the Comte des Grieux.
The whole cast, the chorus and the orchestra were on top form under the vivid, stylish Antonio Pappano. A great evening!