Massenet: Manon

Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon; Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon 073 4431)

9 August 2008 4 stars

ManonA little while back, the opening editorial of Opera magazine bemoaned the celebrity joint promotion of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón and claimed that their voices are not as perfect a match as Deutsche Grammophon would have us believe.

But that's surely to miss the point: as stage animals, they have the most extraordinary, tangible chemistry, which is what makes their partnership so special.

This new DVD of Massenet's Manon is as good a reminder of that fact as any. Though the film was captured during live performances at Berlin's Staatsoper Unter der Linden in April and May of last year, Vincent Paterson's production derives from the Los Angeles Opera, where it was also a vehicle for the pairing of Netrebko and Villazón, as well as Netrebko's role debut as Manon.

It seems to be all the rage at the moment for opera productions to be updated to Hollywood in the 1950s – in the last two months in London alone, we've seen Robert Carsen's take on Candide and Robert Lepage's on The Rake's Progress – but Paterson's flair as a Broadway director means that the idea doesn't pall just from its familiarity. He latches onto the title character's self-reflexivity as the basis for his interpretation: at the start and end of the piece, she sings ‘And that is the story of Manon Lescaut', so Patterson has her living her life with total self-awareness. Her ultimately destructive narcissism is developed to such an extent that she plays her life as a film star, initially made up as an innocent Audrey Hepburn, later becoming a sexy Marilyn Monroe and finally dying as a gravel-faced Ingrid Bergman. Des Grieux tries to adapt to suit her in every act, but Manon is too egocentric to take notice; only when she has precipitated her own death (a fact which Paterson underlines to tragic effect) can he take her in his arms and carry her off into a Hollywood sunset.

It's all slickly and lavishly done, even if the Manon's artifice and posturing occasionally renders her unemotional as well as heartless (though Netrebko's vocal passion makes up for it). The bigger problem for me is that in focussing so keenly on the central character, Paterson leaves some of the other characters underdeveloped psychologically (a problem, not accidentally, which can occur in the films of the actresses who are the basis for Paterson's production): I don't feel that Le Comte or Lescaut – the strong male influences in Des Grieux and Manon's lives – register their domineering forces on the lovers as sharply as I've seen in other productions. More psychological development and less flashiness might lend certain scenes more concentration.

However, these are minor quibbles, given Netrebko's stunningly acted performance in the title role. Those who saw her as Violetta at Covent Garden in January will know what abilities she has as an actress, yet when paired here with someone with Paterson's dedication to naturalistic stagecraft, she has produced even greater results. She is in complete control of every bone in her body and every muscle on her face; there is nothing exaggerated or stagey, yet she continues to act even when she's not the centre of attention. It need hardly be said, too, that the fact that she really does have a film star's glamour makes it a treat to have her perform in a production where she is costumed and made up like one; the forthcoming La bohème film promises to be a treat.

Vocally, the role seems to lie beautifully for Netrebko: I've found some of her forays into Italian bel canto repertoire unconvincing when it comes to coloratura showcases, but the lush sensuality of Massenet's line is great material for her. The same goes for Villazón, in much better voice than in the rival Virgin Classics DVD released earlier this year with Natalie Dessay (which is easily in second place after this one). He is especially compelling in ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image', which blends generous tonal lustre with deeply-felt emotion, but the performance as a whole just seems to find both Villazón and Netrebko in their vocal and personal comfort zones.

Against such operatic gold dust it's inevitable that the other singers would struggle to made their mark, but Alfredo Daza and Christof Fischesser are more than acceptable as Lescat and Le Comte des Grieux, and Remy Corazza puts in a fine turn as Guillot de Morfontaine.

One of the reasons for the success of the DVD is the conducting of Daniel Barenboim. The great maestro stepped in at the last minute to lead the performances, and according to the booklet note he only had ten days in which to learn the opera. Frankly, you really can't discern his lack of familiarity with the score from the footage of his conducting: he seems as confident and authoritative as ever. Interpretatively, I was struck by the visceral quality of his approach, eschewing the tendency to wallow in the hyperbolic exoticism of the orchestration (the main aspect of French opera that doesn't appeal to me) and instead driving the music forward, often through the music's classical skeleton.

Though one might find flaws in it, as far as I'm concerned this DVD is essential viewing for anyone who enjoys the theatricality of opera.

By Dominic McHugh

Reviews of other recent new releases on Universal include:

Fleming in Arabella from Zurich
Rolando Villazon's Cielo e mar album
Juan Diego Florez's Bel Canto Spectacular with Netrebko, Domingo, Ciofi and Friends
Pavarotti in Un ballo in maschera from the Met
Solti conducts a film of Bluebeard's Castle