Agreeing to take on an unfamiliar role in a high profile new production at the last minute takes a great deal of courage and faith. Tenor Roberto Alagna should certainly be commended for singing the role of Des Grieux opposite Kristine Opolais in the Met’s new production of Manon Lescaut. He has a bright tenor voice with the requisite Italiante color, open and clear, and flexible enough to negotiate transitions throughout the register. His high notes are produced mostly effortlessly and his phrasing is smooth. He seemed like an ideal substitute for the originally scheduled Jonas Kaufmann.

On opening night, Mr Alagna appeared nervous in Act I, and he and the Met Orchestra got off to a somewhat rocky start with coordination and intonation issues. As he warmed up, however, he improved, singing with more confidence and beauty in the subsequent acts. One would expect him to show further improvement as the run continues. Another positive with Mr Alagna is that he is a natural actor and took to the role of the ardent but helpless lover of a capricious woman with ease.

Ms Opolais is an experienced Manon Lescaut, and while her voice may lack the gleaming beauty or smooth warmth that may be more typical of the role, she has great stage presence and uses her vocal resources effectively to create a complicated heroine. Her voice was even throughout its registers and opened up easily into penetrating high notes. Manon Lescaut is not so much a continuous narrative as a vignette, condensed in four moments of her life. The transition from an ingénue to a wealthy man’s mistress, to a condemned and finally dying woman is abrupt and the audience is asked to imagine missing parts of the story. Ms Opolais inhabited the character in her various guises, and was especially memorable as a bored, yet coquettish, courtesan and seducer in Act II and a genuinely sorrowful repentant in Act IV. Her desperate cry of anguish in her death scene was most heartfelt.   

The Met Orchestra deftly and elegantly led by Fabio Luisi excelled in bringing out the lush and sometimes “Wagnerian” melodies and motifs of the score throughout the evening. Among the supporting cast, Brindley Sherratt’s Geronte, Manon’s protector, was memorable in his crisp bass. Massimo Cavalletti was a sympathetic Lescaut, Manon’s brother. Two tenors in smaller roles, Zach Borichevsky as Edmondo and Andrew Bidlack as the street sweeper, both made a strong impression with their youthful, sweet and agile voices that were heard clearly and impressively.

Sir Richard Eyre's production, while it had some striking images, such as the “deconstructed” ruin representing the “Wasteland” in Act IV, was problematic. The cavernous set, designed by Rob Howell, featured curved stone walls with stairs in the middle for both Act I's train station with its café crowd and Act II in Manon’s Paris bedroom. Its scale dwarfed the singers and diminished the essentially intimate, domestic drama of the opera. Puccini’s score, rich in emotional and psychological complexity, seemed lost in the scenery. The entrance and departure of the madrigal singers and guests via the tall staircase in Act II was awkward, as was the placement of the bed stage right which made it hard for some of the audience to see the pair during the love duet.

Sir Richard updated the action to 1940s German-occupied France, taking inspiration from film noir. Peter Mumford’s lighting featured tableaux of light and shadow and was effective in creating the foreboding mood of the period. However, there was little rationale for this update. The crowd at the train station teased a group of German soldiers in Act I, but this “political” gesture went nowhere as it was irrelevant to the plot. In Act III, prisoners and prostitutes boarded a ship guarded by German soldiers to an unknown location. The set was dominated by the front of the ship, again diminishing the drama of the attempted rescue of Manon, the parade of deported prostitutes, and Des Grieux’s pursuit of Manon.

In the last act, in what looked like a bombed out sets of Acts I and II, the two leads had to sing while struggling with the remains of the staircase on its side. Both singers looked awkward and uncomfortable, and the audience’s attention was diverted from the crucial death scene, although Ms Opolais and Mr Alagna sang movingly and passionately. Their chemistry and Mr Alagna’s mastery of the role will undoubtedly improve with eight more performances scheduled. The production, unfortunately, will remain at best a grand and ambitious vision, not quite suited to the tragic love story.