This page was last updated on: March 5, 2007

Manon, Vienna Staatsoper, March 2007
Roberto Alagna and Anna Netrebko in Manon, Vienna 2007
Photo by Stephan Trierenberg

Netrebko Rules in Massenet Opera 'Manon', Associated Press, 4 March 2007
Netrebko in Negligee, Alagna Sing Monotonous 'Manon'..., Bloomberg News, 5 March 2007

Netrebko Rules in Massenet Opera 'Manon'
George Jahn, Associated Press, 4 March 2007

Massenet's "Manon," as performed here Saturday, should have been called "Anna."

Netrebko, that is.

Her voice? Childlike when called for, as a 16-year-old on her way to a convent until love catches up with her. Tender, as she says farewell to her true love to throw herself into the fast lane. Passionate, as she realizes the folly of her ways and begs for forgiveness. And effortless, in pitch, phrasing and expression.

But Netrebko on stage would be an experience even if she had laryngitis. Her mimicry, her charisma and her sense of what the role of Manon called for made her a delight to watch, first as a prim but coquettish teenager experiencing her first taste of the big world outside, then as the young lover, the woman of the world - and finally a woman broken and dying but happy in the arms of the man she shunned but managed to regain.

This time, that man was not Rolando Villazon but tenor Roberto Alagna as Des Grieux, her lover. But if Netrebko was missing her almost perennial partner, she didn't show it.

She and Alagna were an example in animal magnetism, whether cuddling in bed in their simple Paris walk-up, clutching in church in the scene where she reclaims him from his life as a priest, or engaging in a final embrace as the stage turns dark, and the curtain prepares to fall.

Alagna, too, delivered a bracing vocal and stage performance, as did the other principals, helping to lift what is sometimes considered a relatively lightweight opera into the realm of serious enjoyment.

No less a master than Tchaikovsky dissed "Manon," commenting after an 1884 Paris performance: "Very charming, well finished, but without one touching or impressive moment," and in the hands of artists less skilled than those at Saturday's Vienna State Opera premiere, such an assessment could hold true.

Arguments against this work have ranged from a thin plot to uninspired music outside of the three of four arias that always get requisite applause. At more than three hours, including a break, such weaknesses could translate into yawns in weaker productions.

Working against that were conductor Bertrand de Billy and the Vienna State Opera orchestra. The music from the pit was bright, tender or muscular, admirably complementing and blending with the voices and action on stage.

And Netrebko and Alagna had admirable backup from Ain Anger, as De Grieux's father; Adrian Eroed as Lescaut, Manon's cousin; Michael Roider as the lecherous Guillot; and In-Sung Sim as the world-wise Bretigny, who lures her to the dissolute life that ultimately proves to be her ruin.

Also enjoyable were Simina Ivan, Sophie Marilley and Juliette Mars as the three ladies of light virtue. Their roles were made even more believable by the decision of director Andrei Serban and stage manager Peter Pabst to move the action from the 19th century into the Paris of the Roaring '20s.

That too worked well, resulting in scenes staged with light projections and cardboard cutout figures - and onstage visuals that complemented the principals, without upstaging them.

Netrebko in Negligee, Alagna Sing Monotonous 'Manon' in Vienna
Larry L. Lash, Bloomberg News, 5 March 2007

No one booed. No one left the stage prematurely. In fact, no one did much of anything out of the ordinary in Vienna Staatsoper's dull new "Manon", an opera ticket that sells for as much as 600 euros ($788) on EBay.

Not only is the titular heroine portrayed by the sultry Anna Netrebko, her boyfriend, the Chevalier Des Grieux, is Roberto Alagna. The superstar tenor made headlines in December for refusing to continue a performance at Milan's Teatro alla Scala after a few churls loudly opined that his rendition of the aria ``Heavenly Aida'' was considerably less so.

The Viennese and Alagna were on best behavior on Saturday, with only a few audible gasps when a passage sung in head tone started to fray. This is Jules Massenet's gooey Belle Epoque treatment of Abbe Prevost's classic tale about an innocent maiden whose entry into a convent is derailed by men, sex, and money.

Manon flees to Paris for love in a garret with her penniless chevalier, ditches him for an old coot when diamonds prove to be a girl's best friend, and winds up arrested and deported with a fatal dose of opera's all-purpose denouement: consumption.

Director Andrei Serban must have been so pleased with his last concept for Staatsoper -- Massenet's weepy ``Werther'' updated to the 1950s -- that he nudged ``Manon'' from the 1730s into the same era of guys in nondescript, dark suits and dolls in cocktail gowns and gloves. The main problem lies in the loss of innocence inherent to the update.

This is no inexperienced 18th-century country girl who succumbs to worldly temptations, but a young woman who's a tease to anything with testosterone. By 1954, a year suggested by a gargantuan poster for a racy Ava Gardner movie, Manon has certainly read some books, heard some swing on the radio, and possibly even watched Gardner's love scenes with Humphrey Bogart.

Beads and Breasts

Fidgeting in a train station in the opening act, she brazenly removes her jacket to emphasize her breasts and offhandedly twirls her rosary around a pointed finger. Soon she's rolling around in bed in a black negligee that leaves nothing to the imagination. Not to be outdone, Alagna models as much of his birthday suit as we are ever likely to see.

The role of Manon is tailor-made for Netrebko's radiant charisma, smoldering sexuality, blazing high notes and dazzling coloratura. Alagna sings with ardor and flashes his boyish smile a lot but is frequently overpowered by the orchestra.

As Manon's opportunistic cousin, Adrian Erod suavely commands the stage, ably abetted by Simina Ivan, Sophie Marilley and Juliette Mars as a B-girl trio of ``actresses.''

Fuzzy Videos

Serban and designer Peter Pabst never offend. The rapturous applause distinctly diminished when director and designer took their bows, yet no one booed, a rarity at a Staatsoper premiere.

Staatsoper's orchestra lives up to its reputation for versatility and gorgeous, idiomatic playing under the superb Bertrand de Billy.