Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo were, deservedly, a huge hit with the audience at last night's Manon premiere (sole sleb-spot, Rhydian, in barman-style white shirt and waistcoat).
Netrebko's saucy, knowing Manon is the architect of her own fate, and if she overdoes the eyelash-batting in the first act, she makes up for it later with a truly affecting performance. She sang strongly, the voice fuller and darker than ever before, looking gorgeous in a succession of lush Belle Époque frocks and a chestnut wig.
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Though Grigolo's acting and singing both suggested he was at the Arena di Verona with the entire audience seated in the back row, his technique and stamina were truly spectacular. With little natural colour range to the voice, he shades masterfully with dynamics, including a beautifully-executed messa di voce. If only he could scale down his performance in the lower-octane moments.
The temperature rises when they duet - easily the most authentic and vital scenes in Laurent Pelly's otherwise unremarkable new production. Despite bargain-basement cardboardy sets, its strengths are largely visual. The skewed values and relentless aspiration of the demi-monde are evoked in wonky walls and an endless succession of ramps and staircases. The social whirl of the central acts is literally rose-tinted. Only in the grey dawn of the final act does the veil of self-deception finally fall.
Characters and motives do not emerge with the same clarity. A grim top-hatted and tailed chorus flap around like predatory crows, finally swooping down on the dancers of the ballet scene to devour them like fluffy chicks. Men are rapacious; women are their inevitable victims - so how do Netrebko's self-sufficient Manon and the actresses who constantly elude Guillot's grasp manage to turn the tables and use the men to fulfil their own aspirations? Pelly provides some stylish stage pictures, but his storytelling doesn't hang together.
There were some fine performances further down the cast list. Christophe Mortagne's puffed-up Guillot and William Shimell's sly, subtle Brétigny stood out, and Simona Mihai, Louise Innes and Kai Rüütel made and entertaining trio of tarts.
The orchestra were on the whole excellent, a distinct improvement on the dress rehearsal, though Pappano seems less sure-footed in this repertoire than some of the other things he's done. He was on home territory with the dramatic twists and turns of the second half - thrilling and near-faultless. The lighter first half had a coarse vigour that suggested he'd gone a little too far in avoiding a sugar overdose.
there was a professional snapper at the curtain call too (most unusual):
Vittorio Grigolo gets humble: