Anna Netrebko in Manon Lescaut

The Metropolitan Opera has returned to Manon Lescaut, the Puccini opera, in the recent production by Sir Richard Eyre. I discussed the production in my April 2016 chronicle. I will not repeat my criticisms of it or my praise of it. But let me say this:

Sir Richard’s Manon Lescaut has Nazis in it, as opera productions do. I smile when thinking of something that a Salzburger told me last summer at the festival. She said, “In the early part of this decade, all our productions had Nazis in them. Now they have burkas.”

I don’t believe that burkas have yet come to the Met stage. But give it some time.

At the Salzburg Festival, in August, Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut in a concert performance. She sang the role in the Met’s production last night. More about her in due course.

In the pit for the Met was Marco Armiliato, the veteran Italian opera conductor. (I should clarify: Armiliato is both a veteran conductor of opera who is Italian and a veteran conductor of Italian opera.) He emphasized the beauty in Manon Lescaut. There is a lot of it. The orchestra’s playing was consistently beautiful, sometimes frustratingly so. You have heard more intense, more exciting accounts of this opera. Now and then, I longed for some rawness. The playing was stubbornly rounded.

And yet I respected what Armiliato was doing, and his view of the score is defensible.

Our tenor, in the role of Des Grieux, was Marcelo Álvarez, the veteran Argentinean. He had a good start in “Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde.” He was stylish in it, taking his time with it. Some singers (and conductors) want to rush through. Some of the notes were approximate, but the music was there. His next aria, “Donna non vidi mai,” did not go as well, being out of shape. That is, the music was loose, flabby, deprived of the shape that contributes to its impact.

For the rest of the opera, Álvarez sang handsomely and well. Or mainly well. He committed some errors, especially some flatness, and this flatness was particularly unfortunate on high notes. But he poured forth his creamy, handsome sound, as he is expected and paid to do. His Act III aria, “Pazzo son,” he sang with intelligence and heart. But—through no fault of his own—he was a size too small in it.

This is an enduring problem in Puccini, and in opera at large: voices that are insufficiently big. Volume can be made too much of. It can also be made too little of. In recent years, I have come to think that I have long made too little of it.

Once, in an interview, Marilyn Horne talked to me about the problem of voices in roles too big for them. She cited, in particular, Mimì, the soprano heroine in La bohème (also Puccini). Renata Tebaldi had the biggest voice she ever heard in her life, she said. “Bigger even than Birgit’s” (Birgit Nilsson’s). Now that was a Mimì, in Horne’s opinion. These days, companies cast lyrics who don’t cut it—who don’t give Mimì all she needs.

Back to last night. Christopher Maltman, the British baritone, sang Lescaut, Manon’s brother, and he sang with considerable volume and potency. Also with considerable beauty, as is his wont. Furthermore, his acting was compelling.

Finally, to Netrebko—who poses no problem in the volume department. In Act III, as the entire, crowded stage was singing, she soared through or cut through. Some combination of soaring and cutting. I was reminded of something that Luca Pisaroni, the Italian bass-baritone, told me, in another interview.

One day, he was rehearsing in a cast with Netrebko. This was not a stage rehearsal. The cast was sitting or standing around in a room. And Netrebko was so loud—magnificently loud—that he could hardly hear himself sing.

At the beginning of Manon Lescaut last night, Netrebko was wobbly and wayward, as she can be. And, through much of the opera, she sharped pitiably. This is a habit of long standing. At a few points, I wondered whether she had forgotten what key she was supposed to sing in.

But she sweeps all of this away—she always does—with her extraordinary musical and theatrical sense. And when I say this, I don’t mean to slight her vocal gifts.

In her Act II aria, “In quelle trine morbide,” she demonstrated amazing long breaths, and an awareness of line. To return to volume: Netrebko was effortlessly loud, and her pianos were both piano—genuinely piano—and substantial enough to succeed in the large Metropolitan Opera House.

As for her acting, she was a diva playing a diva, and I thought, “This is no stretch whatsoever.” But that applies to Acts I and II. The final two acts are different stories.

Puccini’s love duet in this opera is both brilliant and unusual: I call it a “love-hate duet.” Netrebko handled it extremely well, along with Álvarez and Armiliato. It had just the shape it ought to have. Netrebko was both scalding and sumptuous, as necessary. The audience got its money’s worth in the love duet—the love-hate duet—alone.

In the final two acts, as Manon slides, Netrebko acted with real pathos. I don’t think anyone taught her to do this. I think it is basically instinct. She is a stage animal if there ever was one. Her singing was even better than the acting—and they melded, it’s true.

The last aria—Manon’s slayer—is “Sola, perduta, abbandonata.” Netrebko slew. She revealed a throbbing bottom. (Pardon the expression.) People used to speak of Callas’s “bottled” sound, down low. Netrebko has some of that. Higher up, she sang arching, swelling lines. The word “orror”—“horror”—had about eight r’s in it.

Those of us in the house to hear Anna Netrebko’s Manon Lescaut were lucky. This was one of those operatic experiences, one for the memory bank.

Writing from Salzburg last summer, I said,

A million times, I have written, “Netrebko was far from pure—she sharped, she missed, she overindulged—but her immense talent—vocal, musical, and theatrical—carried the day.” And so it was on Sunday.

And the next day, all over town, they said, “Netrebko, Netrebko, Netrebko.”

I don’t know what they are saying all over New York today. But in my head, I hear, “Netrebko, Netrebko, Netrebko.”