Manon at ROH
September 01, 2010
What follows is a piece about Manon at Covent Garden from Miss LCU, the second of three segments from her European holiday.
* Tattling *
I saw Manon at Covent Garden on July 7th and it is now September. Clearly, I am delinquent with my reporting duties. It does not seem to make sense at this point for me to write an actual review. I will, however, use this performance as a jumping off point for an editorial piece.
Can anyone tell me how old Manon is supposed to be in this opera? Anyone? Well, she is very young - fifteen, perhaps sixteen-years-old. So who got cast to portray Manon in the ROH production opposite the Italian tenor heartthrob Vittorio Grigolo? That would be a sultry and rather rotund Anna Netrebko with her rich, dark voice. So what is wrong with this picture? One word: verisimilitude (or the lack thereof).
For some, a few pretty voices are enough to qualify an operatic experience as good or even great. But for me, opera is a Gesamtkunstwerk - a holistic, all-embracing artistic experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. If one component of the equation is lacking, everything else comes crumbling down. Which brings me to why I (and many others) go to the opera in the first place, I go to the opera because I want to completely immerse myself in an alternate reality. For those few hours I am in the theater I want to escape from my life and my world and walk in the shoes of Violetta, Tatyana, or Wotan. I want to be able to relate to the characters - to sympathize with them and to share their joy, heartache, jealousy, suffering, and agitation as if those feelings were my own. When it all comes together - when the verisimilitude is intact - it is magical. You lose yourself and get sucked right into the production. But it is a rare and fragile cohesion, like a house of cards. If one piece is amiss, the spell is broken, and you find yourself in just another uncomfortable seat before a stage full of costumed clowns shrieking their heads off.
My point is how the heck could I possibly relate to Manon as a young teenager when she looks, acts, and sounds like a 40-year-old woman? It is much easier to condone the silly blunders of a naive, hedonistic 15-year-old coquette who is bound for the convent, but hungry to experience all the pleasures life has yet to offer. Chalk it up to her tender age, lack of experience, and insatiable appetite for curiosity. However, a woman in her late 30s who makes those identical mistakes will not inspire the same level of compassion from the audience. Those mistakes will not be viewed as unfortunate errors of judgment by a reckless neophyte, but considered character flaws of a wicked, manipulative, and seasoned gold-digger.
A poor casting decision could easily result in two completely different takeaways from the same story. Instead of compassion and pity for the female protagonist, the audience will feel that Manon got what she deserved at the end - which completely ruins the tragic effect of the opera. What makes a tragedy tragic is getting the audience to fall in love or at least identify with the protagonist (Manon in this case), despite her hamartia (or rather accepting her harmartia as a part her humanness), and then have her die. It is very formulaic, derived from Greek tragedies, and Manon's youthful charm and naivete plays a huge part in this formula as it allows her to ingratiate herself with the audience. Netrebko failed miserably in conveying these attributes. I did not buy her act and that deficiency alone ruined the verisimilitude of the opera for me. Instead of a spirited young woman, I saw someone who resembled a Russian hooker on stage. I do not have anything against Netrebko (though I did find her bragging about her distressed jeans being $1,200 during a 60 Minutes interview extremely gauche and distasteful). She is simply wrong for the part of Manon. If you want to see what a really good Manon looks like, check out the DVD with Renee Fleming in the Opéra national de Paris production. Now Fleming is no spring chicken either, but she was able to portray Manon beautifully.