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The heat is on

`Manon' is all spectacle -- with passion and glamour that go pop.

October 02, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE dream couple is back. Saturday night, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon cooed, frolicked in bed frisky as kittens, passionately kissed and magnificently suffered all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that opera always throws at lovers in a new Los Angeles Opera production of Jules Massenet's "Manon" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Two years have passed since we've seen the Russian soprano and Mexican tenor together. That was Gounod's version of "Romeo and Juliet." At the time, at least some of us wondered what all the fuss was about. He was a dashing star at every turn. She appeared a self-involved slave to her own glamour. Their sex was risibly phony, their much-ballyhooed chemistry appearing little more than an artificial compound poured out of a test tube by a frantic director attempting to bring a stilted opera to life.

But Netrebko and Villazon have been places since then. Most notably they appeared in a tiresomely promoted, pretentious, conventionally Euro-trashy production of Verdi's "La Traviata" in Salzburg, now out on video. And, hype or no hype, they were a major sensation, the thrilling Alfredo and Violetta for our time.

As their appearance together in "Manon" confirms, the Salzburg "Traviata" was no fluke.

L.A. Opera has, without any doubt, a very big hit on its hands, to which Vincent Paterson's naive production, eager to be loved and desperate to dazzle, will undoubtedly contribute. He updates to voguish 1950s Paris Massenet's sweet 19th-century tale of a spirited 16-year-old with stars in her eyes.

In rapid succession, Manon exchanges the convent for a young lover of modest means, exchanges him for hollow high society and attempts to return to him too late. The succession is particularly rapid in this production, since the company cuts (seamlessly and usefully) nearly an hour from an overlong three-hour score.

The production drips glitter. But Paterson comes by his glitz honestly as Michael Jackson's and Madonna's choreographer. His credits are mostly Hollywood and Broadway. But he did create the powerful and boldly original dance sequences for Bjork in the Lars von Trier's musical film, "Dancer in the Dark."

It is a pity that Paterson didn't have a Von Trier with whom to collaborate here, someone to bring a touch of depth to an obsessively superficial show. Instead, he dotes on Netrebko. First, she's Leslie Caron kicking her bobby-soxed heels. Next, she's Liz, pouring out "Butterfield 8"-sized tawdry emotion. Then she's Marilyn. She looks the part better than other divas, but there are even more Marilyns on the opera stage these days than Elvises.

Netrebko is Marilyn-Madonna doing a pole dance in a tawdry Pigalle nightclub. I'm not an authority on the field, but pole dancing seems anachronistic in '50s Paris. And not even Netrebko can pull that off, especially on a flimsy prop that wiggles. Again, I'm no expert in seismology, but I've not heard about earthquakes in Paris.

She can, however, pull everything else off brilliantly -- her clothes, Massenet's score and the rest of Paterson's concept. One thing Paterson does, and does spectacularly well, is unleash the nuclear chemistry between Netrebko and Villazon. He is a director who knows exactly what makes them tick, and you feel that whenever they are on stage, alone or together.

Netrebko is a complete Manon. Massenet's score is a charmer of the first order. Beverly Sills once was everyone's favorite Manon (her 36-year-old recording is still the untouchable gold standard), and she found every ounce of charm and pathos in the music and the character.

But Netrebko goes a step further and makes Manon real. She travels the dramatic path from girlish country bumpkin dreaming of the big city and lights, to the heights of celebrity, to arrest, degradation and melodramatic death, alert to everything.

The soprano does all that and something more, something that I haven't heard her do since her pre-star days singing in St. Petersburg under Valery Gergiev. She sings musically and accurately, neither rhythmically lax nor self-indulgent.

Placido Domingo conducts. He is routinely indulged in this side of his career, and there is certainly a sense of dutifulness to his uniformly emphatic style on the podium.

But he manages to give his singers complete support, to allow them great amounts of freedom, yet makes sure they are always with the music. I doubt Netrebko has ever been more satisfying a singer than she was Saturday, and Domingo surely contributed to that. Plus, he got the orchestra to sound great.

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