Laurent Pelly’s 2012 production of Massenet’s Manon updates the story from the early 18th century to a 19th-century Belle Époque setting. The heroine’s journey from a naive but high spirited country girl to an avaricious courtesan in Paris, and finally to a broken prisoner is a sobering reminder of the cruelty suffered by women in a male-dominated society. The production highlights the watchful and lecherous eyes of men in formal clothing as they silently gaze upon an exposed and flimsy shelter of Manon and her lover Le Chevalier des Grieux in Paris.

They first appear as an overbearing group of men in Act 1, watching and singing from high on stage as Manon arrives from the countryside to encounter the men who determine the course of her life – her cousin Lescaut, her seducers Guillot and De Bretigny, and her lover des Grieux. The sleepy men pursue and menace ballet dancers in the Cours-la-Reine scene and, in the last act, prison guards surround and harass Manon at the end of her life. In stylized sets that seem to reflect the twisted nature of Manon’s fate, with the dwarfed cityscapes in Act 1, platforms on an incline in Act 3, leaning columns of St Sulpice and the desolate harbor with minimal lighting in Act 5, Pelly’s vision is sometimes painful and uncomfortable to witness. His refusal to sugarcoat the tale is appropriate and refreshing.

Lisette Oropesa, making her role debut as Manon, sang with an elegance and style that was perfect for a heroine with little control over her fate. Her French diction was incisive and clear, and her high notes soared into a long and sustained arc. As much as she thrilled with her beautiful singing, she did not unfortunately possess enough vocal power to dominate the stage. Her acting was understated and lacking in variety, when one wanted peskiness in Act 1, desperation in Act 2, seductiveness in Act 3, impetuosity in Act 4 and finally sorrow in Act 5. Michael Fabiano, singing des Grieux, often overpowered Oropesa in singing and acting. His straightforward and powerful singing was well suited to the naive and ardent young man hopelessly in love with Manon. Fabiano showed a variety of colors in his voice, sometimes singing in soft and tender whispers, as in the dreamy “En fermant les yeux” and at the end of the tenor’s big aria “Ah! fuyez, douce image”, and other times hurling powerful outbursts. It was one of the best performances I have heard from Fabiano. He also acted with charisma, embodying the character’s conflict between his earnest desires for Manon and his worldly expectations.

The performance had a solid group of supporting singers. Artur Ruciński (Lescaut) sang in warm and smooth, but booming, voice that commanded unusual attention. Carlo Bosi as Guillot and Brett Polegato as De Bretigny were perfect in voice and acting as Manon’s agents of corruption. Jacqueline Echols, Laura Krumm and Maya Lahyani looked and sang pretty and perky as Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette. The veteran Kwangchul Youn as Le Comte des Grieux, the stern father, impressed with his deep sonorous voice and authoritative stage presence in his brief scenes. The men and women of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus sang with remarkable beauty and unison, an essential part of the evening’s performance, not only in voice but as the crowd surrounding the lovers. Maurizio Benini led a Met Orchestra in their splendid element. There were slight coordination issues in Act 1 between pit and stage, but once the performance hit its stride, the evening became one to savor. The cello and violin solos were especially impressive, the perfect accompaniment to many tender moments in the arias. After initial issues, the woodwinds shone with splendid solo and ensemble performances, reminding one of the distinct French style of Massenet’s music, with its emphasis on long stylish melodies and motifs.