I'm unaware why stage director Gilbert Deflo chose a nearly complete absence of scenery and props for this Manon, first shown at the Opéra Bastille in 1997. The DVD booklet merely mentions the "minimal décor," but that doesn't do justice to the way the stationary stage coach, viewed through an abstracted black cutout of a building frame, fades to leave a spotlighted Fleming on an empty black stage for her first solo, "Je suis encor tout étourdie." Many such moments follow. Or consider the way a row of seven chairs, symbolizing a waiting area, fades into view on an otherwise empty stage when Des Grieux makes his initial appearance. Despite the lack of any explanation, I find it cleverly done, especially when contrasted to accurate period costuming that places one's attention squarely on the characters.
Without the sets and props, however, the performers are left to react to one another and not to an environment. This limits them during those portions of Manon that involve events rather than reflection, and can stultify blocking. Deflo's ensemble doesn't use the hotel dinner table for anything other than seating, which is just as well, since there are only a few empty plates and glasses on it. The singers often have nothing to look at or focus upon when alone on stage, so they turn out to the audience. At least Manon gets her petite table when she sings her farewell to it in act II, but not infrequently the very barrenness of the surroundings are paradoxically a presence that gets in the way of acting.
The performances are exceptional. Alvarez's voice had darkened a bit by the time he did this Des Grieux, a few years before he carefully moved into the lirico spinto repertoire. There is still tenderness and a scrupulously bowed line to his "En fermant les yeux," while "Ah! fuyez, douce image" avoids undifferentiated passion to mirror the shifting emotions of text and music. His acting is competent, if not inspired. Fleming is excellent, though idiosyncratic. The innate richness of her voice makes it difficult to fully depict Manon's fragility--as does her occasional resort to a hollow tone, entirely out of sync with the expressive needs of the moment--but she has excellent coloratura and enunciation, good acting capability, and a rare grasp of character.
Secondary parts are similarly cast from strength. Rich-voiced Jean-Luc Chaignaud makes a fine, strong Lescaut. Michel Sénéchal's age doesn't stand in the way of delivering an outstanding Guillot. He has no effective chest resonance left, but offers an acting lesson to anybody who cares to watch. López-Cobos isn't the most exciting or focused of conductors, but the rest of the cast performs at an inspired level. It only remains to mention that the Opera Ballet in act III is handled brilliantly, with colorful period costumes and formal Baroque dance sequences.
Sound formats include PCM stereo, and Dolby Digital 5.1. The picture format ratio is 16:9, and subtitles are presented in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Chinese.
This is definitely one of the more interesting versions of Manon to appear in some time. I like the overall design concept, despite my reservations expressed above, and find both costuming and lighting superior. The cast is a very fine one whose members were obviously "on" during this performance, and the results make for a memorable evening. -- Fanfare, Barry Brenesal, December 8, 2009
Arthaus presents an exceptional Manon from the Opera Paris on DVD. With American star soprano Renée Fleming in the manyfaceted title role, Argentinean tenor Marcelo Álvarez opposite her and Spanish opera conductor Jesús López-Cobos, this production provides first-rate listening and viewing of one of the masterpieces of French opéra lyrique.
The musical excellence of the performers in this production is outstanding. Renée Fleming's Manon is womanly and seductive, her voice perfectly cultivated in this enormously demanding role, that requires change of register, sentiment and expression more often than almost any other operatic role. The combination of vocal beauty, stylistic versatility and commitment to dramatic portrayal made her Paris Manon an enormous success, in an interview she comments, 'I think Manon is my favourite role. I love French music, it is so elegant and delicate stylistically. It has both dramatic and lyrical elements'.
Renée Fleming is partnered by the brilliant Marcelo Álvarez, who is hailed as 'one of the hottest tenors on the international scene' (Opera News), in the role of the Chevalier des Grieux. Together they present an absolutely moving final scene, when Manon dies in her lover's arms, proving them one of the dream teams of the international opera scene.
The staging by Gilbert Deflo had its first performance at the Bastille opera in Paris in June 1997 and proved to be an unforgettable experience complete with splendid historical costumes by William Orlandi, sophisticated lighting, opulent ballet dancing and colourful mass scenes. The minimal décor of darkly shaded abstract backdrops further accentuates the magnificent, colourful costumes thus shifting the focus onto the interaction between the characters of the drama. This is supported by the close-up filming, so that the viewer can actually experience an intimate filmed drama.