Review: “Thriller”- Paterson Links with Netrebko, Villazon and Domingo in Los Angeles Opera “Manon”, October 5, 2006

The detractors of Jules Massenet, who wish all of his operas would disappear once and for all, experienced a near-fatal blow when his most performed opera, “Manon”, was revived in a brilliant new Los Angeles Opera production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

A quartet of celebrities assured that the endeavor would make a splash in the entertainment world’s most fame-conscious metropolis.

One of the late 20th century’s most successful operatic superstars, Placido Domingo, conducted the latest conjunction of the meteoric career of soprano Anna Netrebko with Domingo’s protege, tenor Rolando Villazon, in the same theatre in which the torrid Netrebko-Villazon rendition of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” took place in February, 2005.

(Although the performances were sold out, I was able to improve the seating for myself and my wife at the box office an hour before the performance, to be in the second row center, directly behind Conductor Domingo.)

Domingo, Netrebko and Villazon are by themselves an awesome trio of collaborators in the relatively self-contained world of opera. But in this production they linked up with Vincent Paterson, the choreographer and stage director who developed the waltz steps for Madonna and Antonio Banderas in Alan Parker’s film version of the musical “Evita”.

More memorably outrageous, it was Paterson who devised the crotch-grabbing moves for Michael Jackson, whose choreography he developed in “Thriller” and other of Jackson’s biggest selling videos. The Paterson choreography has been evident in such diverse films as Stephen Spielberg’s “Hook”, Mike Nichols’ “The Bird Cage” and Carl Schenkel’s “The Mighty Quinn”.

It was Paterson who worked with Netrebko on her 2003 “concept” DVD, where she performs operatic arias in a format whose homage is to the music videos of rockstars.

In Paterson’s production, Manon is shifted from its 18th century moorings to Amiens and Paris in the 1950s (perhaps a half-decade later than the time of Evita’s Buenos Aires).

Although these days, time-shifting more often than not results in weird and indefensible anachronisms, there are some arguments that can be made for the particular time travel that Paterson has arranged for Massenet’s masterpiece.

The principal argument – which for other standard operas usually does not hold much water – is that the time-shift will make the opera “relevant for new audiences”.

It is assumed, for example, that Handelian opera written for the extinct vocal category of castrato soprano, will be relevant to new audiences if sung by counter-tenors dressed to impersonate the capos of Chicago Gangland families.

[Below: The Chevalier des Grieux (Rolando Villazon), edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

But Massenet’s “Manon” has had a bit of an image problem which has resulted in neglect by many who would find the opera, should they come to know it, to be truly a Thriller!

A century plus a decade ago, Puccini described the opera as very French – its essence, in Puccini’s words (or their Italian equivalent), all powder and minuets. In Puccini’s mind, this left room for his Italian (read passion-soaked) version of the same story, “Manon Lescaut”.

Some people have concepts of Massenet’s “Manon” as a daintier work than it really is. (If you really want to get an idea of how “Italian” that Massenet really can sound, get hold of the inexpensive Opera d’Oro recording of “Manon” – which I highly recommend – sung in a live 1969 La Scala performance in Italian by Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti and Rolando Panerai, conducted by Peter Maag.)

Suppose you were a stage director/choreographer who wished to keep the passionate French elements of “Manon”, but to eliminate the “powder and minuets” that caused Puccini to seek an Italian way of telling the tale.

Why not move the action to Paris (and Amiens) in the 1950s? Would such a time-shift be believable for the story of a provincial girl of wild spirits who falls passionately in love with a young man of modest means, but who also desires the lifestyle she can achieve through the financial resources of older rich men, leading her to make bad choices that destroy her?

Do we really need powder and minuets to tell this story? It is, after all, the French who tell us that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

There are six scenes in “Manon”, and in this production all are able to be time-shifted without great violence to the story. The stage coach stop at Amiens becomes that town’s train station. The apartment in Paris’ Rue Vivienne requires a little table. The update adds a bed (implied by Massenet anyway), a view of the Eiffel Tower and two faux-Picasso statues.

Marie de Medici’s Cours le Reine is in post-Revolutionary times now longer a Royal Promenade but a place for citoyens and others to enjoy the view of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine at the Pont de l’Alma (and in more recent times, to contemplate the fate of Princess Diana and Dodi in the automobile tunnel underneath).

Saint-Sulpice is still a working church in Paris’ Sixth Arrondisement, although one suspects that more of tourists in the last couple of years are there because of its prominence in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code than are seeking the location of the seminary in which the Chevalier des Grieux trained for the priesthood.

The Hotel de Transylvanie (which post-Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles seems like it should be located near Armand’s Theatre des Vampyrs) in the source material has the feel of a naughty place for the well-off to gather, and thereby stokes the imagination of anyone who wishes to update it in a setting for it closer to us in time.

The final scene “outside of a prison on the Road to Havre” is the least geographically fixed of the six episodes, and in Paterson’s concept becomes a beautifully lit place where Manon’s earthly coil is shuffled off.

The Paterson touch is evident from the overture when the theatre curtain opens briefly when Des Grieux’ “Manon is a Sphinx” motive plays in the orchestra. We get a glimpse of Netrebko, dressed like an Audrey Hepburn ingenue, riding alone in a train car that is pushed forward between the parted curtains.

The first scene in Amiens, truly reflects the spirit of a small French city’s train station.

We meet Manon’s cousin Lescaut, effectively performed by Hyung Yun. We also meet two character actors with San Francisco Opera histories. Ryland Davies as Guillot de Morfontaine, presented as an aging but dashing dandy roue.

Davies had debuted in S.F. in 1970 in two new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle productions mounted that year: Ferrando in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and Cassio in Verdi’s “Otello”, and was the Sailor’s voice in the famous production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” with Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson.

He only returned in three additional seasons, two reprising either Ferrando or Cassio for Ponnelle, and, finally in 1986 in the S. F. premiere of Tippett’s “The Midsummer Marriage”.

In Los Angeles, Davies, now celebrating 40 years as an operatic performer, was a memorable Guillot, a character obviously ready to use his wealth to advance his womanizing, but not so uncool as to appear lecherous.

His companion, de Bretigny, who engineers Manon’s first experience in leaving one lover for another with greater wealth and power, proved an amiable role for former Adler Fellow Dale Travis.

Three months earlier Travis had been a pedestrian and not particularly funny Dr Bartolo in San Francisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, but likely it matters what the stage director (Gina Lapinski in the Mozart, whose instincts – at least for directing Verdi operas – I have criticized on this website) has asked the artist to do.

But there is not a scene in “Manon” where the Manon is not the center of attention, and only one scene lacking the Chevalier (in that one it is his father who shows up to represent the des Grieux family interests). A (two-dimensional) locomotive arrives outside.

Soon a group of passengers depart the train, including Manon. She connects with her cousin, and agrees to wait while Lescaut and his soldier friends conduct some business.

Soon des Grieux arrives, played superbly by Villazon as an amorous and goofy teenager with forelock curls. (I am convinced that had Villazon pursued a film career rather than opera, he would have been a natural to play a sidekick of Gael Garcia Bernal in such movies as Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien”.)

[Below: Des Grieux (Rolando Villazon) and Manon (Anna Netrebko) when they first meet; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The adolescent des Grieux becomes infatuated with the adolescent Manon. Rescuing her from her foreordained career as a nun, Manon and des Grieux steal Guillot’s car (updated from the 18th century coach), and it is off to the Rue Vivienne in Paris.

All of the intra-act scene changes happen before our eyes, and often contain entertaining elements. Sections of the Amiens train station are re-arranged to become a California King sized bed in des Grieux’ apartment, which stagehands dressed as maids arrive to make, and to furnish with large pillows.

[Below: Des Grieux (Rolando Villazon) and Manon (Anna Netrebko) preparing for their Act II pillow fight; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photographs, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

This sets up the opportunity for Netrebko to appear in a silk teddy and engage Villazon in a pillow-fight. When Villazon reads his letter to his character’s father, the Comte des Grieux, he crawls up her body.

When Lescaut and Bretigny reveal to Manon that the Comte is going to take control of his son by force, when she is alone singing of her nostalgia for the apartment’s “little table” she sprawls over it erotically, ending the aria on her back.

In the Cours le Reine scene we are in a statuary garden under the feet of the Eiffel Tower (when we were transported in time, we appear to have crossed the Seine). The image of Delacroix’ painting “Liberty Leading the Masses”, a reference to the Revolution of 1830, incongruously appears.

Other than it being approximately half-way in time between the time period inferred by Prevost (the author of the original Manon Lescaut) and that chosen by Paterson, its symbolic purpose was elusive.

Besides being the one scene in which a stage director/choreographer gets to work with dancers, and which Netrebko gets to dress like Marilyn Monroe wearing Christian Dior fashions, it was notable in highlighting David Pittsinger as the Comte, who possesses a first rate bass voice, and was an affecting actor in his interchange with Netrebko’s Manon.

[Below: Manon (Anna Netrebko) frolics at the Cours la Reine; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The Saint Sulpice scene is more often than not the highlight of a great performance of “Manon”. In this setting a giant grill at the front of the stage separates the sacristry from the street outside.

Rows of votive candles burn at stage center. In the background is a large image of a Madonna and Child. Ladies in their 1950s dress styles swoon over the exciting new priest.

Comte des Grieux congratulates the Chevalier (whom he believes is soon to be ordained Father des Grieux) on his success in the seminary and reveals that he is delivering to him 30,000 francs inheritance from his mother.

It is at this point that Villazon sings des Grieux’ lament “Ah fuyez, douce image”, one of the greatest French tenor arias, and one that permits him to demonstrate the full range of his vocal and dramatic powers.

But instead of fleeing as des Grieux commands, the sweet image of Manon appears in the flesh, and after only a few priestly protestations, she grabs the hem of his vestments and within a moment the two are in ecstatic embraces on the floor of the sacristy.

[Below: newly frocked Abbe des Grieux (Rolando Villazon), is tempted by Manon (Anna Netrebko) at Saint-Sulpice; edited image, based on a photograph by Robert Millard, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The gambling scene in the Hotel des Transylvanie is ingeniously, although controversially presented. Obviously a high end night club perhaps down the street from the Moulin Rouge, it is glitter and neon lights that flash an iconic representation of the Eiffel Tower.

In the center a pole dancer attempts to attract the attention of men who find the gambling tables of more immediate interest. The Chevalier has grown a small moustache and with Manon has clearly gone through a great deal of his mom’s inheritance.

This being the 1950s, Manon clearly feels she is empowered to disregard the dangers of crossing rich and powerful men who feel she has cheated and stolen from them, and makes a point of ridiculing social convention by taking a turn at the pole dance.

It was not, of course, to be. Accused of cheating, Manon and des Grieux are arrested, although the Comte des Grieux arrives in time to extricate his son again from his dissolute ways.

Pittsinger begins the final ensemble, which strongly hints that Massenet was quite aware of the skills of Amilcare Ponchielli, composer of “La Gioconda” and teacher of Puccini, in writing a truly grand “Ponchiellian” vocal line for principals and chorus to end a dramatic scene.

[Right: Manon (Anna Netrebko) shows off at the Hotel des Transylvanie. Edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

As we move into the final scene there is the prison doorway, and a sick and tattered Manon is reunited with des Grieux. As the great romantic themes that comprise the musical matrix of “Manon” are reprised, bricks and mortar disappear and we are transformed into a deserted plain bathed in sunset.

(No longer is it important that Massenet’s librettists specify that Manon’s death is in France and their source material – Abbe Prevost – and Puccini’s librettists specify Louisiana. We are in an ethereal realm that would be appropriate for the ending of either opera.)

Did the production — with its Netrebko-Villazon pillow fight and its opportunity for Netrebko’s debut performance as a pole dancer — introduce Massenet’s masterpiece to new audiences? All the evidence I could amass is that it certainly did.

I was joined by three other operatic patrons whose reactions to details varied. Tom did not like the pillow fight, but loved the rest. Andrew, whose mother had taken him as a boy to see Bidu Sayao and an aging Tito Schipa in the opera, missed the powder and minuets.

My wife thought that some of the sets, created at the Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden’s shops, at times seemed more like summer stock than grand opera.

But all of my party regarded it as an unqualified success for Netrebko, who is rapidly achieving superstar status, and a brilliant role for Villazon, who is developing his international fan base as well.

It was also a further triumph for Domingo (whom I would see two nights’ later as an extraordinary Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”), whose conducting career is in its ascendency, and well-established for such future time when he decides to retire from the operatic stage.

It was a great operatic production for the Los Angeles Opera, and for Los Angeles as a world center of culture, albeit a culture with the confidence to write its own rules of what is good and bad.

The production had razzle-dazzle. It gave opportunities for the Hollywood crowd to make their lists of which Netrebko Christian Dior-style costume was associated with which 1950s star in which picture. But what of Massenet and his “Manon”?

It proved the opera works, and, with an exciting Manon and des Grieux, is a wonderful evening at the opera house. The production did no violence to the story, and the opera surely has accumulated many new fans, who went to see what the fuss was about, and left with their heads full of Massenet’s seductive melodies, and a determination to buy the CD.

Although this production is eminently revivable and should be successful in other cities throughout the world, particularly if Anna and Rolando come with it, there is also no doubt that this team would also sell out performances in a production set in a time in which the conventions, dances and costumes reflected the tastes and whims of Versailles.

After all, be it Versailles or L. A., the more things change, the more they remain the same.