REVIEW: Manon Lescaut is a Triumph

Six Philly-area movie theaters will screen the Met production live on March 5.
Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut". Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Manon Lescaut. Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Sometimes there is an opera staging that is so artistically sound that lovers of the art form can take a deep breath and think, “We’re okay!” Sir Richard Eyre’s luscious new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which opened at the Met Opera on Friday evening, is one of those moments.

The icing on the cake for local opera fans is that the staging will be broadcast live on March 5 at a host of Philly-area movie theaters for those who can’t make the trip to New York (the list is below), although you really ought to grab a train or a bus and catch the gorgeous soprano Kristine Opolais and her dashing co-star Roberto Alagna in-person.

Kristine Opolais and Martin Harvey in "Manon Lescaut". Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Kristine Opolais and Martin Harvey in Manon Lescaut. Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: This is the opera that made Puccini something of an international celebrity back in 1893, but the story, based on the novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, is somewhat outdated (usually set in the 18th century) and borderline saccharine. A young girl, Manon, sent to the convent by her father, is swept off her feet by a dashing young student, Des Grieux. After becoming bored with him, she marries into money, only to engage in a passionate affair with Des Grieux. This leads to her arrest and subsequent banishment to America (insert Trump joke here) with her lover, where they are left to die in the desert.

Eyre updates the action by placing the opera in France of the 1940s during the German occupation, and instead of the lovers being banished to America at the end, they end up in a war-torn building that has been destroyed by battle. Eyre also employs what he calls a film noir style, which works remarkably well. Each act starts with a black screen with white letters, which describes the scene, and the handsome sets by Rob Howell, which ranges from a grand train station to a gold-laden mansion to a huge, desolate ship at harbor, bore out the motif nicely.

Lighting by Peter Mumford makes certain scenes, such as the one where Manon is performing a sexy dance for her rich husband’s guests, rather breathtaking, as does Fotini Dimou’s costumes.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in "Manon Lescaut". Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Manon Lescaut. Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Of course, there’s the stunning Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, who has become one of the world’s foremost Puccini interpreters, playing the title role.

Ms. Opolais was in excellent form on Friday evening, and she brought a raw vulnerability to Manon’s transformation from innocent teen to femme fatale to desperate woman. Her co-star, the fabulous French tenor Roberto Alagna, was a last-minute replacement of the originally casted Jonas Kaufmann who withdrew from the production. However, Mr. Alagna was excellent, and the Met even went so far as to include a special addition to the program thanking him for taking on the part.

The strongest vocal moments came when Alagna and Opolais soared in their Puccini duets throughout the evening, and the scene where both characters are reunited in act two was nothing short of remarkable. Conductor Fabio Luisi lead the Met Orchestra with a great level of sensitivity, and the fabulous Met Chorus sounded fantastic, as usual.

The ending, bleak and unforgettable, affirms why we go to the theater, the opera: To experience human emotion on a grand and epic scale.

Philadelphia-Area Locations for March 5 Live Screening at 12:55 p.m. (tickets available here):

  • Riverview Plaza, Philadelphia
  • University 6, Philadelphia
  • Movies 16, Somerdale
  • Plymouth Meeting 12, Plymouth Meeting
  • Ritz 16, Voorhees
  • King of Prussia 16, King of Prussia

Manon Lescaut runs at the Metropolitan Opera through March 11. For tickets and more information, click here.