Anna Netrebko scored an unmitigated success in her first Manon Lescaut at the Met, almost obliterating director Richard Eyre’s and designer Rob Howell’s misconceived production. Less than a year old, Mr Eyre’s idea was to present the work with a nod to the film noir of the 1940s, using Manon as a femme fatale who leads her lover to wrack and ruin. Point taken. But really, what does Nazi-occupied France have to do with anything that Puccini’s opera has to say? If anything, it’s an opera about class distinctions, not politics.

Brindley Sherratt (Geronte di Ravoir) and Anna Netrebko (Manon) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Brindley Sherratt (Geronte di Ravoir) and Anna Netrebko (Manon)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

There are too many anachronisms. A curved, crumbling façade of a stone building looms over the stage, and at the top of a long, gray cement staircase peopled by hookers is a railway station (the horse and carriage of the text). A café is chock-filled with students, lovers and other groups, among whom are Nazi soldiers who genially tolerate being mocked by the locals. In Act II, Geronte’s salon has the same stone walls, with a different staircase, stage center, going up to a pair of golden doors. Ugliness and colorlessness otherwise prevails, save for Manon’s bed and dressing table – and her dresses and nighties – stage left. Her dancing teacher instructs her in tango, during which she rubs herself all over him, in front of Geronte. The gigantic prow of a ship with an enclosed jail in front of it makes for an effective Act III, but who knew that the Nazis exiled prostitutes to New Orleans? The last act is a ruin of the first two acts, the building and accompanying staircases destroyed, acting as an obstacle course. Yes, moral decay equals the world physically collapsing.

Anna Netrebko (Manon) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Anna Netrebko (Manon)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

After an iffy start, complete with pitch issues in mid voice, Ms Netrebko walked away with the opera. Starting with an “In quelle trine morbide” of melting beauty and through the madrigal and following scene which she closed with a stunning messa di voce on a high C, she was riveting. Full-figured and beautiful, frolicking in her jewels and stunning dresses in Act II, haggard in Act III, and properly practically dead in the last, she never let up vocally. “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”, sung at the lip of the stage, was generous of voice and overwhelming in emotion. Spinning pianissimi, singing with full-throated passion, and using a dark, husky chest voice to great effect, this may be her finest outing yet. She is absolutely worth her hype.

At her side was the Des Grieux of Marcelo Álvarez, singing with far too much muscle and eschewing true legato to pop out high notes, which were, let it be known, thrilling, if peculiarly produced. His acting varies between really sincere when he is reacting, to odd arm-waving during solos, but the passion of his performance and his dead-on pitch created an ardent young lover, shockingly desperate in the last half of the opera. Christopher Maltman’s Lescaut was a tricky character, utterly amoral and cocky, and delivered with burly tone. Brindley Sherratt’s big, mean bass was perfect for the slick Geronte. And Zach Borichevsky, repeating his Edmondo from last season, has become far more engaging.

Anna Netrebko (Manon) and Marcelo Álvarez (Chevalier des Grieux) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Anna Netrebko (Manon) and Marcelo Álvarez (Chevalier des Grieux)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Marco Armiliato let the stupendous Met Orchestra roar, and his sense of momentum kept the audience at attention. There was a bit of a scramble near the close of the lovers’ lengthy duet, but it was quickly righted and seemed more organic than troublesome. Aside from a pair of “Tristans” earlier in the season, this was the first relatively full house the Met has had. 

Five stars for the musical preparation, three for the let’s-do-something-new, ugly production.