Despite Laurent Pelly’s new staging of Massenet’s Manon having a whiff of IKEA about it, its two stars Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo outshine this mundane setting with coruscating performances. Netrebko, whose voice has darkened over the last few years, is mesmerising in the title role, whilst Grigolo gives notice of a major talent and was awarded the hugest ovation of the evening.
Was this new staging of Manon subject to last minute budget restraints? It certainly looked the case as Chantal Thomas’ set designs were basic in the extreme. Act 1 looked as though someone had forgotten to paint the drab MDF walls, whilst the lovers’ apartment in Paris was a wobbly eerie plonked in the middle of the stage. There was little magic in the Cours-la-Reine scene whilst the unholy shenanigans in Saint-Suplice took place against the backdrop of what looked like a cash-strapped production of Tosca.
Updating the action to the time of composition was fine in itself but the lack of any discerning visual metaphor ultimately threw all the onus on the performers, and luckily having Netrebko and Grigolo in the leading roles, they were able to carry such a weight on their shoulders, but I have to agree with a colleague who pointed out that without such a starry cast any revival of this Manon will be a very drab affair. Given that this is a co-production with the Met, La Scala and Toulouse one would have hoped for a bit more visual elegance. It looked bare on the Royal Opera House stage so it’s going to look even sparser at the Met.
Thankfully The Royal Opera has assembled a terrific cast. Netrebko’s voice has darkened over the years and whilst she tried too hard at being a naive young girl at the start, she certainly grew as a character over the ensuing acts, looked marvellous in Pelly’s costume designs and produced plenty of ravishing singing. Her top notes were thrilling, her death genuinely moving. Opposite her Grigolo received a clamorous ovation at the final curtain, and was definitely the audience favourite. His is a thrilling voice, but he has a tendency to sing at a relentless forte and some of his phrasing was bumpy which suggested his technique isn’t altogether there. He certainly looked the part especially in the Thornbirds-like dénouement in Saint-Suplice, and plainly has a major career ahead on him this was one of the most exciting house debuts in recent years
All the supporting roles were well cast with particularly strong performances from William Shimell (De Brétigny) and Russell Braun (Lescaut). Antonio Pappano drew suitably Gallic playing from the orchestra, and revelled in the heady score and thankfully kept the saccharine levels to a minimum, never an easy feat with Massenet. Well worth catching, especially for such brilliant performances in the main roles.