Thursday, April 12, 2012

Met Opera Review: Pelly matches Mulvey with Manon

By David Salazar (For the 04.11.12)

In 1975, Laura Mulvey developed the feminist theory of the "Male Gaze" which purports that the audience is put into the perspective of the heterosexual male. Mulvey asserted that most classic Hollywood Cinema takes this stance and in doing so we get the ideas of voyeurism, fetishism, and objectification of women and women as an object of male pleasure are directly linked to the theory. Mulvey supported this notion by stating that the majority of filmmakers of the time were male and hence the voyeuristic gaze of the camera was male.

Interestingly enough, the same correlation could be made to opera. Predominantly male composers with a never ending list of suffering heroines that fall victims to male dominance. Puccini springs to mind in his own obsessive manner of bringing tremendous pain and suffering on his numerous heroines. And indeed Puccini himself wrote a certain opera entitled "Manon Lescaut" that succeeded a french opera on the same topic.

When writing "Manon Lescaut" Puccini famously claimed that he would do the opera differently than his predecessor Massanet and instead of "Powder and Minuets" his opera would be filled with Italian Passion and ardor. And while a great deal of the French operatic history has been marked by the pomposity and (to a certain extent) the superficiality of Grand Opera, it is really hard to number Massanet among those. Yes Manon is a story which centralizes on the superficiality of a young women and her eventual tragedy, but there is certainly more to say for Massanet's ability to bring slice of life moments into his work like few other composers.

With the new production at the Met opera, director Laurent Pelly has brought the depth and richness of Massanet's work to the forefront utilizing Mulvey's very theory to the forefront; albeit with a few insightful amendments of his own. I have never been a big fan of the opening of the opera in which the three actress and Monsieur Bretigny call on the hotel manager to serve them their food. Slice of life moments are expected in any Massanet opera, but this one often seems a bit overlong since most directors do very little with it. Pelly does not do anything particularly eye-opening here, but moments later, the scene actually feels like an essential organic part of the opera; it establishes the main theme of the work: society's predatory nature. Initially we are only introduced to the male predator: Suspicious-looking men clad in black suits hover on the second level of the set looking down on the action on the floor of the stage, almost like vultures awaiting prey. Women only appear through small windows, appearing as prisoners. Manon becomes the intended prey for Guillot early on in the work. Even more telling is a moment where she arrives looking for her cousin Lescaut and ascends the staircase toward a large crowd of the aforementioned crowd of men. There is a sense of danger for the naive girl as she climbs the steps, but suddenly Lescaut stops her and the problem is averted.

Manon3As the curtains for Act 2 rise we are treated to a staircase leading to the minuscule studio apartment that represents Manon and Des Grieux's abode. Outside of the stairs is a group of the same men in black suits looking up at the terrace in rather suspicious manner looking up at the Manon. There is a great sense of dread which is supported by the separation between the two lovers: Manon is in bed in the room, while Des Grieux sits at the staircase outside writing his letter. Bretigny becomes the next predator as he goads her into running off with him for the luxuries of the world. In the following act, the so-called "Cour-De-La-Reine scene" this same crowd of men are mesmerized by Manon (they can't take their eyes off of her) as the male gaze reaches its most obvious portrayal and its height. Prior to Manon's entrance a group of models are put on display almost like statues downstage so as to be shown off not only to the men on stage, but the audience: Pelly essentially imposes the male gaze on the audience in the most direct manner. Later in the scene ballerinas are put on display, supposedly for Manon's pleasure, but as she claims she sees "nothing." Instead the pleasure is for the men to enjoy and they in fact do as they forcibly carry off the ballerinas for what one might assume is rape. The ballerinas scream with terror as the men carry them off: Men's predatory nature, which had only been hinted at and implied thus far reaches its apotheosis and is finally fully revealed.

But then Pelly does an about face and essentially confronts Mulvey's theory: are men really the only predators? As the famed Saint-Sulpice scene commences the crowd of women can't take their eyes off the young abbe. They know he is forbidden, but what gives? They stare and dream right? But then Manon takes it a step further: she not only stares, but she unleashes her predatory skills on Des Grieux right in the church and wins him back. Pelly punctuates this scene rather well with Manon ripping off Des Grieux's religious attire exposing his bare chest: a little bit of nudity that sent a great deal of conservative folk home from the theater. The following scene at the Translyvania Hotel furthers Manon's predatory control over her lover Des Grieux until eventually she is defeated by who else: Guillot who has been hope to feast on her the entire opera. The cautionary tale of Abbe Prevost (the writing of the original "Manon" text) is fully realized: in the battle between Male domination and Female Domination, the woman stands no chance.

It was certainly not my intention to analyze Pelly's production when I initiated this review, but it just goes to show how strong a production Gelb has finally been able to realize on his stage. Pelly's set is rather spare and minimalist but not without careful design. Every scene in the opera has some sort of incline of staircase that often emphasizes the power and control or isolation of certain characters at distinct moments. The costumes are also extremely well thoughtout and designed. As the opera commences the men are mainly clad in black while the women wear mostly white. Save for the soldiers who wear blue (a necessary representation to establish them as such) and Des Grieux and Manon are clad in shades of grey, everyone follows this clothing assignment. This pattern continues through the "Cours-De-La-Reine" scene where we see the white/innocent women get abused by the Black males. In the following scene at Saint-Sulpice, the crowd of women admiring Des Grieux are surprisingly clothed all in black (they are now predators). Des Grieux is also in black. Manon surprisingly comes in white for the first time in the entire work, but we know that the display of purity and innocence is simply a facade to win over Des Grieux. By the end of this scene the color scheme that had been so (pun intended) black and white, has now been inverted, altered, subverted; a tremendous manner of turning the idea of the "male gaze" on its head. After this scene, the clothing scheme loses its symbolic essence, but the effect has already been administered and fully realized.

As much as I admired the production, I did have a few minor gripes with Pelly on a few fronts. To get things started, I felt that the design for the Saint-Sulpice was a bit odd. I understand the need to suspend disbelief, but how is a bed placed in the back of a chapel. And if it is a separate chamber, why are the women able to peek at the chamber from the chapel? Why isn't there at least some sort of wall to separate it?

Additionally, most modern directors tend to bring the curtain up as soon as possible. Pelly however chooses to let most of the preludes play out for a bit before bringing the curtain up. I had no qualms with it to start the opera, but during Act 3, Scene 1, the festive music sets the scene for the  festival scene and it would seem opportune to bring the curtain up right with the energetic entrance of the music rather than wait. Same goes for the beginning of Act 2. This is further exemplified by how effective his choice of bringing the curtain up sooner in the later scenes of the opera.

Some may note that I have yet to bring up the final scene of the opera in which the heroine dies. For me this was the most disappointing part of the evening, where Pelly seems to have simply let the singers do their thing. The details from the rest of the opera were missing. Manon is dragged on staged and beaten by these predatory men, but it lacks the impact and power of other theatrical coups that Pelly pulls off earlier in the work. The scene as a whole felt rather anti-climactic to be sure, and a great deal rests on Pelly's lack of innovation.

Anna Netrebko's performance represented in many ways the ideal Manon. Her Manon was the not the text-book naive girl who is corrupted by riches and dreams of wealth. From her first interaction with Lescaut it was evident that she is already very much that flirtatious "coquette" as she puts it. She's probably going to the convent because she's already gotten into past problems. She pranced around, danced around, ran, jumped; she was the embodiment of unstoppable energy on stage. As the opera progressed, this Manon was the epitome of chameleon, altering her action to the circumstance: sweet and loving her Des Grieux; pompous and demanding with Bretigny; seductive when the need came for it. By the gambling scene came around, Netrebko's Manon was no longer that silly girl from the beginning of the work; one got the sense that some years might have passed and this was now a mature woman in completely control of those around her. But  in the opera's final scene, Netrebko's Manon was broken, barely a glimpse of the past innocent or the strong woman that dominated so many men. She was essentially a walking corpse. Netrebko's singing matched this portrayal brilliantly. She often gets chided for spotty intonation, particularly in her upper range, but this was far from the case on this evening. Even the notorious Hig Ds she is forced to sing in the famous Gavotte were  fantastic in both intonation and execution. At the start of the work, her voice possessed the light qualities that one associates and often expects from every Manon. Her voice floated in her upper register while remaining versatile in the lower. As the opera progressed, Netrebko relished in her darker hues and heft, creating a sound that not only ringed brilliantly throughout the massive opera house, but resounded powerfully. Her use of darker tones supported this idea of maturation in the character and added dimensions one doesn't always hear from a true light soprano singing the role.

Piotr Bezcala had a standout performance as Des Grieux. Bezcala's portrayal of the love stricken youth gave one the sense that the tragedy was not only Manon's but also Des Grieux's as well. Like Netrebko, his first act represented an immature innocent youth man smitten with love. He copied all of his lover's dancing and frolicking and looked every bit like the inexperience awkward youth attempting to impress his lover. As the work progressed, this Des Grieux always seemed like a man fighting to maintain his innocence and yet know he cannot cling to it. Bezcala always looked fragile on stage, making him easily the most sympathetic character on stage. This was supported with the refined, polished, pure singing that Bezcala employed through the evening. The greatest example would be during the small aria in which Des Grieux tells Manon of his dream of them living together. Toward the end he spun a note of uncontested beauty; mezza voce,  completely weightless and disembodied. It was a moment of true ethereal beauty that is rarely heard anywhere. While he held a certain restrain to support his naive/innocent character, his voice let loose in the Saint Sulpice with intense passion in his aria and duet. He was no longer the innocent/ awkward/ lovestruck boy, but a passionate, tortured man.

Paolo Szot matched his co-stars as the sneaky Lescaut; the epitome of the awful society depicted by Pelly. And despite his openness with his bad habits, Szot imbued Lescaut with a great measure of charm and levity. His voice rang brilliantly and seductively. Christophe Mortagne was also a heartwarming Guillot. Despite his often being pinned as an insolent villain, this Guillot was portrayed as a desperate older man looking for a lover. One could identify with his disappointing rejections from Manon at every turn, making his eventually turn on Des Grieux and Manon feel like an authentic act of dejection and frustration. Bradley Garvin was a strong Bretigny while Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jennifer Black, and Ginger Costa-Jackson brought charm to the three actresses Poussette, Javotte, and Rossette. David Pittsinger brought both warmth and unyielding authority to his Des Grieux.

Fabio Luisi is a busy man these days taking on not only Manon and Traviata at the Met, but the entire Ring Cycle. He must be exhausted, but his conducting on this night would definitely not indicate such. In fact, his conducting was wildly energetic, with fast tempi consuming the majority of the score. In fact, at times I thought the fast tempi might be a bit overzealous pushing the drama too quickly. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the opera's final scene where it seemed that Luisi was pushing ahead in hopes of finishing up soon. The final scene lacked some dramatic urgency because in my opinion, Luisi's propulsive forward moving tempi took away all the suspense of the moment. There was never any indication that there was any hope for Manon; the music would not permit such ideas. As aforementioned a lot of blame goes to Pelly for the overall ineffectiveness of the final scene, but Luisi was not an asset here either. Otherwise, the night went swimmingly. The choice of tempi in the Cour-De-La-Reine gave the scene immediacy and pace. The ballet that is usually not included was a swift breath of fresh air. The card-playing scene at the Hotel Transylvania also had the energy and excitement one might associate with such a location.

Peter Gelb constantly lectures about bringing interesting theatrical experiences to lure in new audiences. As has been evidenced (in my opinion) with the majority of the productions from this year, he has not been completely successful at achieving this message. In addition to the Enchanted Island, this Manon brings that theatrical experience that Gelb has been hoping for and in spades. In my Faust review I spoke of giving intelligent interpretations to classics that are not always treated as intelligent works of art. Faust was an example of how said approach can fail tremendously; Manon is the ideal example of how this approach can succeed greatly.

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