A Sensational “Manon” in Los Angeles

Review by David Gregson, September 30, 2006 LOS ANGELES:

“I'm tired of getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop!” complains Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 comedy, Some Like it Hot. Well, she’s still getting it thanks to neophyte opera director Vincent Paterson who exploits Monroe’s blonde bimbo persona in his astonishingly successful new interpretation of Jules Massenet’s Manon, currently playing (to sold-out houses no doubt) at Los Angeles Opera.

Paterson, whose former experience as a director and choreographer includes important work with Madonna and the now disgraced Michael Jackson, seems to see Monroe as the worst and most serious manifestation of Manon Lescaut’s moral decline into shallowness and sexual decadence; yet, however outrageously sexy the actual Monroe appeared on screen, she still projected a sense of vulnerability. As Wilder’s Sugar Kane, she was as hot as they got in the ‘50s, but she was still the naïve girl who might get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

No stranger to literal superstardom, Paterson sees Massenet’s operatic heroine (taken from the novel by the Abbé Prevost) as yet another self-dramatizing, self-promoting media celebrity – and so he first gives us Manon as a playful naïf (Leslie Caron in Gigi); and then Manon as an equally playful, but somewhat more experienced lover (possibly Audrey Hepburn); and next as a slightly jaded sex-pot making her way through a list of lovers (Elizabeth Taylor). The Monroe character appears after Manon has lured her former amour, the Chevalier des Grieux, out of his newfound calling as a priest. Ultimately Peterson’s Manon ends up looking like Emmanuella Riva in Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima mon amour,” although I am not all certain that particular incarnation was intentional.

This concept for Manon could not possibly work without the willing participation of an operatic soprano who is (1) utterly gorgeous; and (2) willing to play along. The fact that she must also be (3) a perceptive interpreter of Massenet’s music and possess (4) a perfectly fabulous voice and (5) a brilliant vocal technique, along with (6) the stage instincts of a Broadway star, means a director like Paterson needs Anna Netrebko.

Put this incredibly gifted Russian soprano together with the equally gifted Mexican tenor, Rolando Villaźon, and you have operatic dynamite. He’s not utterly gorgeous, of course, but he can make you believe he is – and he matches Netrebko point for point on numbers two through six. It’s no secret that this is one sensational couple, even without a real-life romantic connection (as in the case of another once sensational couple, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu).

Yes, this was a glitzy and not terribly profound retelling of “the story of Manon Lescaut” (a line actually sung by Manon herself twice in the opera), but the two big stars find the truth beneath all the superimposed dramaturgy, and offer musical performances second to none. My one complaint is that Villaźon (a great favorite of mine on the basis of his singing alone) is forced by the stage situation into distorting the aria “Ah! Fuyez, douce image,” even to the point of faulty intonation. Petersen gives us a des Grieux “behind bars,” as it were, trapped by his priestly vocation in a literal cage formed by the kind of grille often seen in churches (and in dozens of operatic church scenes too, I might add). Trapped by religion! Yes, we are hit over the head by this idea – and it tells in Villaźon’s singing of the aria.

Oddly enough, Johannes Leiacker’s sets for this show, although varied and occasionally quite interesting, fail to evoke much of a feeling of period (which is ostensibly the ‘50s) or to supply much visual pleasure. In this production, well lighted by Duane Schuler, Manon’s sad “histoire” begins in a sort of cardboard cutout train station where our heroine loses her way to the convent, so to speak. Next we are in an equally two-dimensional Paris flat with a view of the Eiffel Tower and the roofs of Paris (looking for all the world like a dreary abandoned oil field with one big well); and then the famous Cours-la-Reine scene takes place amongst a sad collection of cartoon statuary. It’s the crowds wearing Susan Hilferty’s marvelous costumes that grab the attention here. The church sequence is, as design, very old news, as is the scene before the prison. A nightclub sequence is both impressionistic and anachronistic, while the final backdrop – an orange-red sunset, purposely evokes many Technicolor film finales.

Some music has been cut, by the way, including almost all the dance music; and the singers wear headsets so that the spoken dialogue can be amplified. Purists will gasp, but the headsets seem like a good idea to me. The production also features an erztatz peripatetic lighting crew meant to emphasize Manon's Hollywoodized mentality, but this idea is not consistently carried through.

With Plácido Domingo in the pit, the Los Angeles Opera play stylishly as well as in a manner most congenial to the singers – among whom must be counted baritone Hyung Yun, quite good as Manon’s cousin. Lescaut; bass David Pittsinger, imposing as the Comte des Grieux; tenor Ryland Davies, a most memorable world-weary presence as Guillot de Morfontane; and bass-baritone Dale Travis, excellent as de Brétigny. The fine comical Pousette/Javotte/Rosette triumvirate consisted of Hanan Alattar, Lauren McNeese and Michèle Losier, while William Vendice’s LAO chorus members turned in their predictably first-class work.

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