I have always considered Manon Massenet's masterpiece, and as much as I love Puccini's take on the story I do find Massenet's opera(such as the final two acts) more plausible story-wise. Both have fantastic music, with Massenet's Manon having Ah Fuyez Douce Image, Adieu Notre Petite Table Manon's Gavotte, the Cours-La Reine and St Sulpice scenes just to name a few. And this Gran Teatro Del Liceu production is well worth checking out. Is it the definitive Manon for me? No, my favourite is the one from 1977 with Beverly Sills, followed close behind by the 1983 Gruberova and 2001 Fleming performances. The 2007 Netrebko and Villazon production I think it is worth the look too, as is the one with Alagna as Des Grieux. In fact the only Manon so far I didn't like very much was the 2012 Met production with Netrebko and Bezcala, not completely bad as the support cast are great but overall the production was inconsistent.
Back to this production, what really struck was how imaginative and evocative the staging and sets were. Those wanting a more traditional, sumptuous approach in the veins of Ponnelle and Zeffirelli may want to look elsewhere with Gruberova's version especially. But what I loved about this Manon was not only its lavishness to represent the former luxuriousness(such as in Dessay in crimson in the gambling scene), but also its colour palette of grey and a mossy kind of green to represent the more seedy and neglectful elements of the opera. David McVicar's staging does very well to reflect this, with the St Sulpice scene sensual as it should be and the final act emotionally devastating. Not only that, but he also succeeds in reminding us that Manon's means to survive sumptuously is superficial rather than just the rags-to-riches story.
The camera work is just as great, almost cinematic in fact, and the clear picture and sound qualities are impressive too. Massenet's music is gorgeous, and enhanced with beautiful and nuanced orchestral playing, a well-balanced chorus that don't resort to static poses or mugging and Victor Pablo Perez's elegant and very french-sounding conducting. The performances are wonderful, with only one disappointment. That disappointment was Samuel Ramey as Count Des Grieux. He certainly looks great, is suitably firm and authoritative and the big scene between him and Villazon is both tense and restrained as is the question/answer-like scene between him and Dessay, but his voice is not in good shape sadly. Gone is the dark, seductive sumptuousness that made me fall in love with his Attila and Mefistofele, now replaced with an unpleasant wobble. See him in Sills' production in the same role, he is much better vocally there.
Fortunately the rest of the cast are more prominent and much more consistent. Manuel Lanza's Lescaut is sympathetic and very robustly sung. Didier Henry is a nasty De Bretigny. But it is the two leads that shape the opera, and both performances are astonishing. Natalie Dessay captures the role of Manon perfectly, seductive and vulnerable with her Gavotte full of gaiety and her final moments full of warmth yet quiet. Her vocal production while showing off her brilliant colouratura also has a girlish naivety that I think is perfect for Manon. Rolando Villazon's Des Grieux is every bit as convincing, there are some signs of strain but most of the time the tone is honeyed and full of musicality like in En Fermant Les Yeux, and the whole performance right up to his heart-wrenching reaction to Manon's death is compellingly real.
All in all, moving and evocative, this Manon's a winner. 9/10 Bethany Cox
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