Over the years, Massenet's ``Manon'' has become, for most opera lovers, the quintessence of French opera. It offers charm, pageantry, glorious melodies, a good dollop of Gallic sugar, and superb vehicles for a dazzlingly gifted light soprano and lyric tenor. Massenet took Abb'e Pr'evost's once-sensational novel and turned it into a sentimental, graceful opera about a well-born, flirtatious girl bound for a convent but intercepted by a gallant, love-struck Chevalier, who remains devoted to her right to the end, when she dies in his arms.
The New York City opera mounted a Fragonard-inspired production by Tito Capobianco as a vehicle for Beverly Sills in 1968; it is still impressive today. The Metropolitan Opera's last production of ``Manon,'' dating back to the old house, was a notorious flop. It was fitting that after more than a 20-year absence, the Met should give the opera another chance. However, the real question at the unveiling of the Met's new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle staging was just how this heavy-handed director-designer would handle the work.
In fact, the final image of the evening sums up the entire affair by laying on it an almost Brechtian harshness that has no place in this opera. Instead of the traditional desolate roadside set, we are faced with a massively high stone wall, punctuated near the top by three Romanesque arches that reveal a road. A huge staircase slashes down from high up stage right to the floor at stage left. On ``ground'' level are piles of rubbish - an old table, broken wicker baskets, and other trash.
As soon as Manon dies, the Chevalier des Grieux - instead of falling prostrate on her body - flees up the staircase (an Olympic-style running event, given the scale of the production), leaving her among garbage. Throughout the evening, Mr. Ponnelle makes it clear he does not like this heroine, and by leaving the audience with this ghastly final image, he also shows how little respect he has for the work itself.
On the basis of his past Met projects, which include two desperately over-produced Mozart operas - ``Le Nozze di Figaro'' and ``La Clemenza di Tito'' - Ponnelle would have seemed a questionable choice to stage the delicate ``Manon.'' This once-effective director currently favors massive, monochromatic sets and mechanical direction, which combine to overpower any work he is staging. His direction has taken on an alienating edge that emerges in a heartless, even cynical view of the vulnerable human characters he is supposed to be elucidating. ``Manon'' needs a feather duster; Ponnelle has used a broom.
In some cases, an operatic performance can survive its misguided production. But both musically and vocally, this ``Manon'' (to be radio broadcast Saturday, check local listings) was seriously wanting. Conductor Manuel Rosenthal's ponderous, leaden way with the delicate, evocative score was as disappointing as his decision to replace the spoken dialogue with Massenet's recently-discovered graceless recitatives (orchestrated by Rosenthal).
Of the singers, only veteran French tenor Michel S'en'echal, in the character role of Guillot de Morfontaine, was of Met caliber. David Hamilton's De Br'etigny was especially fussy and overwrought. Ferruccio Furlanetto's Count des Grieux lacked nobility and vocal poise; David Holloway's baritone is now too hollow for the role of Lescaut in so large a theater.
Denes Gulyas stepped into the role of Chevalier des Grieux at the 11th hour for what we were told was an ailing Neil Shicoff. Mr. Gulyas behaved like a pro, even though it was his first time in the role and on these sets. He was musical, and he filled the role convincingly. Unfortunately, the timbre and production of his voice were unappealing.
Finally, Catherine Malfitano's Manon was wanting in just about every vocal and histrionic aspect, and she received about as tepid and boo-laced an ovation as I can remember for a first-night, new-production performance.
Needless to say, without an adequate Manon, the entire production had little chance attaining distinction. However, not even a dream cast could have survived the production. From the first act to last, with the exception of the grand and impressive ``St. Sulpice'' scene, the white-, pale brown-, and granite-toned sets offered no visual counterpart to the music.
Ponnelle's costumes were a mix of periods and (mostly garish) styles, but not of colors. The one exception was Manon's ``Cours-la-Reine'' gown, a monstrous spread of scarlet satin that made Malfitano look like a walking ``A.''
By making Manon an ambulatory ``symbol'' rather than a living, breathing character, Ponnelle unintentionally highlights the deep flaw in all his recent productions: No one lives; no one engages the listener/viewer's emotions or sympathies. The entire approach bodes ill for forthcoming Ponnelle projects, which include a major Mozart opera cycle in the next few seasons.