Jules Massenet: Manon
DVD + Audio CD
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International superstars Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón give inspired performances in Massenet's passionate opera, Manon. Netrebko gives full range to her abilities as a singer and actress in portraying innocence, lust, greed and, above all, beauty. It is Netrebko's mesmerizing performance which makes Villazón's youthful passion and ultimate despair even more authentic and heart-breaking. The setting in this production has been updated to the 1950s and the entire opera takes place as if Manon were the star of her own film. Indeed, Netrebko transforms her character from the innocence of Audrey Hepburn through the voluptuousness of Marilyn Monroe into the tragedy of Ingrid Bergman. The work of director Vincent Paterson, known for his work on Broadway and in music videos, is especially effective in creating an energetic and ultimately tragic performance with stunning visual splendor. Netrebko and Villazón, the true dream-team for this opera, are joined by the conductor Daniel Barenboim who leads the Staatskapelle Berlin in a spontaneous and passionate performance.
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But back to Manon. I had already purchased the Virgin DVD and loved it although there were deficiencies but this is not the place to discuss them. For conservative opera goers this Berlin production is probably not the version to buy. As everyone knows the action as has been moved up to 1950 or there abouts. For me this works even though Massenet clearly evokes a France of the 18th century in much of the music. And Anna? she is a charmer entering fully into the the directors concept. She pounts, she flirts, she charms, she lies and she loves all with passion and commitment. Oh yes, she sings well. Is it a French Manon? Well, hardly, but she does make the attempt--a language coach is credited. There is only one Frenchman in the cast, but a stylistic French Manon in the 21st century is unlikely. One wonders when was the last time a Massenet opera was performed in Berlin, and to have Barenboim at the helm. This is hardly his fach, if one can borrow a singer's term. It is amazing to see and hear this great conductor who has spent his life with Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner conducting what many consider a frivolous entertainment. The notes indicate that he took over some ten days before the performance was to debut; he learned the score in that time; surely a rest from the rigors of his usual repertoire and a bravo for not patronizing the music.
For me it would be impossible to choose Berlin over Barcelon or vice versa; I am glad I have both. I prefer either one to the Fleming version even though it was produced at the Bastille. Renee is weak in the first two acts--Dessay it probably the only Manon who can claim to be 15 and not look like a liar. And even though I have not seen it, the Vienna production has no allure for me. I may be accused of being sexist here, but Gruberova has little on not sex appeal for me and the voice is insufficiently glamorous.