Amidst all the brouhaha attending the Metropolitan Opera’s opening week, Manon was clearly the sleeper. Sandwiched between the high-profile new Porgy and Bess and the ‘would-he-or-wouldn’t-he’ Domingo Macbeth (in the end he wouldn’t), a revival of Laurent Pelly’s 2012 staging of Massenet’s bittersweet romance looked relatively unassuming on paper. However, with an excellent cast, a stellar turn from a rising star, a smart staging, and a fine reading of the score, Manon most definitely should not be overlooked.

Lisette Oropesa in Manon. All photos © Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Massenet’s five-act take on L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, a racy 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost, is an odd fish. Composed for the Opéra-Comique in 1884, it possesses neither the tragic passion of Puccini’s opera of 10 years down the track, nor can it quite make up its mind whether it’s a romantic comedy that takes a turn for the worse, or a stormy morality tale with sunny spells. Whatever it is, it’s certainly long – a 7:30 show at the Met comes down after 11:30pm – and Massenet might have been well advised to ask his librettists Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille for a bit of a trim. However, the score is one of the composer’s finest – light as a soufflé and sweet as a bon-bon – and, at least in this current production, the show barely drags.

The plot is an oft-told tale: ambitious country girl comes to the big city, deploys sexual charms to rise to the top of the social tree, makes powerful enemies, winds up in prison, and finally dies in a ditch. Along the way, she ruins the life of a decent enough young man who lacks the willpower to resist repeated doses of her considerable wiles. Laden with dirty old men who think pretty young things are there for the taking, it’s a bit of a road accident from the #MeToo perspective, and whether you warm to Manon as a good-hearted soul unable to make up her mind between love and riches or condemn her as a selfish gold digger very much depends on the combination of director and soprano. In this case, Pelly’s handsome, thoughtful production stacks the deck in favour of Lisette Oropesa’s subtly developed heroine and lets the singer do the rest.

Lisette Oropesa as Manon

Pelly’s first canny move is to shift the action to the Belle Époque, the time of the opera’s composition. By shining a light on the recognisable Victorian hypocrisy of Parisian society, we understand how Manon is likely doomed from the start. He’s also aware of the work’s musical proximity to late Offenbach, and how, despite the disastrous dénouement of Act V, it was not commissioned by the Opéra-Comique for nothing. Chantal Thomas’s clean-limbed sets have an intriguing off-kilter quality about them, as if to emphasise the fairy-tale elements in a story where nothing is quite what it seems, and everyone falls in love at first sight. In fact, Massenet’s musical treatment of Manon is not so far removed from his sparkling Cendrillon of 15 years later. Pelly’s good-looking period costumes – sober for the gents, sumptuous for the ladies – and Joël Adam’s effective lighting provide sterling support.

Any production of Manon stands or falls on its twin leads. New Orleans-born Lisette Oropesa won the 2005 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions before joining the company’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Over the last decade her reputation has grown steadily, and this year she was named the winner of both the 2019 Beverly Sills Artist Award and the 2019 Richard Tucker Award. Manon is her finest role to date, her clear, flexible soprano perfectly suited to Massenet’s blend of text-driven lyricism with the occasional burst of coloratura. From her breathless first entry full of wide-eyed charm to her final desperate gasp in the middle of Thomas’s endless highway to hell, she charts a clear path that ensures our engagement even as we vacillate between sympathy and condemnation. Each of her arias is a carefully contrasted gem, from the ditzy chit of Act I’s Je suis encore tout étourdie, to the double whammy of her Act III showpiece Je marche sur tous les Chemins with its following coloratura gavotte. By contrast, her famous Adieu, notre petite table is simple, yet profound.

Lisette Oropesa as Manon and Michael Fabiano as Des Grieux

Her Chevalier des Grieux is Michael Fabiano who will be familiar to Australians from Opera Australia’s Faust, Lucia di Lammermoor and Werther. The New Jersey-born tenor is another local success story having won both the Beverly Sills and Richard Tucker Awards in 2014. Here he sings with ardent power, his solid tone ringing out especially strongly in the middle register. If his croon at the top can feel slightly drifty, he’s never less than committed, combining vocal chops with acting nous. An effective foil to Oropesa, he’s at his finest as the “hot priest” of Act III, scene 2, delivering a ringing account of Ah! Fuyez, douce image.

In supporting roles, baritone Artur Ruciński is a punchy Lescaut, making the most of his two disposable but enjoyable arias. Carlo Bosi is memorable as the randy old Minister of Finance, Guillot, his characterful tenor easy on the ear, while Jacqueline Echols, Laura Krumm and Maya Lahyani make a sweet-toned trio of (ahem) “actresses”. The warmly sonorous Kwangchul Youn – a fine Gurnemanz in OA’s Parsifal a few years back – is luxury casting as the old Comte des Grieux.

The gambling den from Manon

The icing on the cake is Maurizio Benini’s finely paced reading of the score. The Met Orchestra responds to his fervent commands, delivering a colourful account of Massenet’s ear-tickling, if occasionally high sugar content score. It’s a rare operatic occurrence when absolutely everything goes right, but with its combination of intimacy and spectacle, all the elements are in place, making Manon a top recommendation when it gets its HD airing in Australia this November.

Manon is at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until October 26. Australians can see it in cinemas on November 23

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