Text and Photo by Yige
This is a report of the final dress of Manon Lescaut in MET on Nov. 10, a general impression of Anya's characterization of Puccini's Manon, and a preview of what to expect in the performance.
Once again Anna Netrebko surprised me. It was not the singing which, of course, was the top tier one could find around. What so inspiring was that she, as a complete artist, bring up every resource, with first and most importantly, her singing, to shape a character.
When Anya canceled the performance in Munich, reports from different sources seemed to suggest the major problem between them was that the director's idea was that Manon needed to choose between love and money, she chose money but regretted later, while Anya felt Manon just wanted both and refused to choose. Some asked whether this difference of idea is something that can make a visual difference on stage. I don't know. But at least it would make a huge difference in singing.
That's to say, Anya's singing here was always sincere and passionate. Never was one moment of cold calculation. This is, how I feel at least, exactly what Puccini composed into music. I say "always" meaning this attitude was throughout the whole opera, toward anything beautiful, both love and money (or more precisely, spiritual beauty and material beauty).
Thus, when she sang the beauty of countryside of past in act one, it was gray but sweet. Then, in the beginning of act two, one could hear some unusual childish joy when Manon was singing about the hairstyle, the clothes. Later during the dancing class and singing, the colorful singing clearly suggested this Manon was enjoying it. With all these "preparation" for the audience, when it came the time that Manon naively wanted to collect jewels to take with her in the end of act two, one just cannot blame her. These beautiful things mean something to her.
Such is the key to bridge the first two acts and last two acts. On the surface, (most of) the first two acts are light-hearted while the last two are heavy-hearted. If not played well, it would be hard to gain audience's empathy of the heroine--we can certainly say it was Manon's own decision that led her to the fateful result.
The common wisdom to answer why we should feel empathy for Manon is that she's a victim of a man dominated society. Not denying this element in the plot, I doubt how much of PUCCINI's Manon has this victim property. And Anya didn't play the victim. The real tragedy here is not seeing a victim's death, but the death of a person with so much passion on the beauty of life. With this in mind, we can understand the "problem" of this opera regarded by some--not having a coherent plot--is not a problem at all. It's not telling the story of Manon Lescaut but describing the character of her. The first two acts is to build up the character, and the later two is to destroy the character. (It's interesting to compare between the last lines of Massenet's "Manon"--"Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut", and Puccini's "Manon Lescaut"--"Ma l'amor mio--non muor".)
Anya understands this tragedy. Her largest success was, of course, in the last act which can break the heart of a stone, though I think it was because she put so much effort to build up the character earlier. To make a dying scene beautiful is not that hard, but how many times when you hear Manon keeping repeating she doesn't want to die in a dark voice horror, you cannot help but remember the earlier time when it was bright and joyful? With her singing, this opera was a complete whole.
Clip from rehearsal by MET: