Giacomo Puccini’s opera on the famous fallen woman of French literature is the less famous adaptation of the tale, but when the Met broadcasted it yesterday, they talked about how it was his first hit. Indeed, you can hear in it some general skill in writing music, although for this one he didn’t manage any super-memorable themes like his later operas contained. He also simplified the story far more than Jules Massenet did in his more famous version, and took it out of its original time period, which left director Richard Eyre free to set it in another time period all together, and he went with occupied France, as being a France and a time period in which the plot more or less worked: when powerful people could do what they wanted and everyone else ignored terrible things around them in exchange for being able to live their lives if they were lucky.
Puccini’s version of Manon and her lover are also somewhat simpler than Massenet’s, though whether or not that’s a bad thing depends almost on how you look at it: on one hand, things are shallower, but on the other, their actions make a bit more sense psychologically, especially in the first half of the opera. The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.
Alagna and Opolais are going to be singing more Puccini to each other on the Met stage and screen as well; they’re also starring in the upcoming Madama Butterfly. Unfortunately I’m going to be in Boston during that one.