Manon on the newly released DVD with Netrebko and Villazon is lovely the second time around (see here). All that is missing is Anna Netrebko jumping up and down during the bows.
The director is there to explain the production to us. Manon in the overture is reading movie magazines such as one used to find at the beauty parlor. She sees herself as an actress: first Leslie Caron [I insist], then Audrey Hepburn, then certainly Elizabeth Taylor, then Marilyn Monroe, and finally herself. The lights on poles that seem to follow Manon around the stage in the early scenes are part of her movie actress fantasy. Anna and Rolando Villazon bring the drama to life. It is difficult to imagine this particular production with other principles.
Perhaps one of the young women in my house in Florence would like to play Manon. At 16 she moved in to her boyfriend's house and is now a very mature 19. She spends all her money on shoes. She would like to learn Italian but realizes that all the designer houses in Florence are a stronger temptation than she could ever be expected to resist. She thinks perhaps Lucca would offer less temptation.
Sorry. I have digressed. But it is many years since I have been exposed to such young women and now see Manon entirely through their lives. Manon chooses in the moment, a reasonable thing for a 16 year old. Youth is to enjoy, not to pause and think seriously over. I am myself attempting to achieve an unexamined life and hope it is not too late.
The original Manon novel that forms the basis for two operas was written by an Abbé (L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost), and I’m sure was intended as a cautionary tale. The child Manon is obviously too frivolous and is sent off to a convent. On her way three men manage to fall in love with her: De Brétigny, a nobleman, Guillot, an aging rake, and the handsome, young chevalier des Grieux. She chooses the last and runs off with him. Later money seems more attractive, and Manon goes off with De Brétigny. In the end she is betrayed by Guillot and dies in prison. We are to see the ill effects of bad choices.
It is hard with our modern eyes to see the evil in Manon. Why should a 16 year old prefer the life of the convent over her handsome nobleman? How is she to resist beautiful shoes?
I love this production and think everyone should experience it. The scene at Saint-Sulpice is my favorite. But then Anna's Marilyn is also excellent. Anna mentions how much she needs and draws on Rolando's energy for her characterization. They are a dynamic pair who add to each other's performance -- the total is greater than the sum of the parts.