The two leads in the brand-new cast of the Met’s three year old production of Massenet’s Manon have big shoes to fill: Anna Netrebko’s and Piotr Beczała’s. But that, as anyone who has seen the production and knows the work of the newcomers, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo, is the least of their problems. Laurent Pelly’s uninviting and downright perverse production is a hurdle few can clear.

Both ugly and unfathomable, the production has been updated to the last decade of the 19th century (and later; there are fluorescent tube lights in the gambling scene), which musically contradicts the perfumed, cunning, sometime sad and sentimental, sometimes glittering melodies and corrupt aura of the original setting, the early 18th century. Costumes are black or white, save for pastels for the ladies of the nights and a nicely trollop-y fuschia gown for Manon in the Gambling Scene. Sets (by Chantal Thomas) are slanted, unadorned and angular and feature ramps à la modernisme, the opening scene features tiny little houses sitting atop gray walls (is this irony?). The Cours-la-Reine is not festive and shiny and it is here that the ramps really become inconvenient, especially for the dancers, who exit by being slung over the shoulders of the omnipresent lascivious men. And there’s a bed conveniently located in the Church of St Sulpice for Manon and Des Grieux to flop down on. I can glean from it all metaphorically that the world is crooked and hard to navigate, but Pelly’s viewpoint is murky and doesn’t “sell” the opera at all well.

The glamor that Netrebko brought to the role is unique nowadays, but Diana Damrau certainly sings the role better and looks terrific as well. Netrebko’s pitch was off when she was the star and her high Ds occasionally weren’t quite high enough (or altogether absent); no such issues for Damrau. What the German soprano’s voice lacks in warmth she makes up for in accuracy, enthusiasm and shading – her pianissimi are stunning.  The “Adieu, notre petite table” was lovely and touching; “Suis-je gentile aussi” glittered like diamonds; the St Sulpice scene was tender and seductive, even if it could have used a bit less crawling on the floor of the church. In general, Damrau is a fine actress but tends to overstate her case – a bit too much twirling and posing, but, in all it was a marvelous portrayal.

The energy level was not let down by tenor Vittorio Grigolo. The voice is gorgeous, utterly secure, and ideally suited for French opera, it seems (his recent Hoffmanns were excellent), and his boyish charm goes a very long way. Even more hyperactive on stage than his soprano, the two of them almost turned the Church Scene into a Steeplechase before they landed on the bed and Manon ripped the cassock off des Grieux. But the singing! The mutual attraction and perfect, stress-free music-making ravished the ear. Grigolo’s “En fermant les yeux” in Act II was entrancing in its tenderness; “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” was a bit overwrought, but handsomely sung. Ovation followed ovation for both singers.

The lesser roles were a mixed bag. Russell Braun’s well-acted, corrupt Lescaut was raspy, and Dwayne Croft sounded worn as De Bretigny. Christophe Mortagne’s Guillot was delivered in a type of maniacal Sprechstimme. Nicolas Testé's Count des Grieux was beautifully sung, as were the Pousette, Javotte and Rosette of debutante Mireille Asselin, Cecelia Hall and Maya Lahyani, respectively. All added to the drama, acting up a storm – one cannot accuse Pelly of creating a static performance: it sometimes looked like Grand Central Station at rush hour.

Emmanuel Villaume, standing almost high enough on the conductor’s podium to block the stage, led with a far more gentle style than his predecessor, Fabio Luisi. Manon’s opening ariette and initial meeting with des Grieux were charming, the second act was gentle and loving, the Cours-la-Reine properly trashy, the St Sulpice Scene exciting and sexy, the Hotel Transylvanie ensembles held together even when all hell broke loose, and the brief final act was the very picture of gloom. 

How mighty this all would have been in a production that “looked” like Manon instead of some weird expressionistic drama. But as I said – the singing of the two leads was unbeatable.