For this production -- engineered by the Met, London's Royal Opera House, Milan's Teatro alla Scala and Toulouse's Capitole -- Pelly has the genuinely bright idea to update it from the early 18th Century (where Abbe Prevost set his 1731 novel and where productions are usually placed) to the Belle Epoque, during which Massenet and collaborators did their work -- and which they were criticizing.
It also doesn't hurt that Pelly, who designed the costumes, has crafted several gorgeous outfits for Netrebko, including a plumed white hat that makes her look like a whipped-cream-topped strawberry parfait, a simple white frock which she wears when she visits Saint Sulpice to win back her estranged lover, the Abbe des Grieux (Piotr Beczala), and the dazzling red number she's in throughout the gambling scene that leads to Manon's downfall.
It may even be that Netrebko's sense of how alluring she looks (like a woman in a John Singer Sargent painting) that further bolsters the confidence with which the singer embodies the once-innocent woman who becomes the toast-of-Paris playgirl.
In addition, were Beczala's singing and acting less moving than they are, the potency level of the new production would be ratcheted down several notches -- even though he and Netrebko both deliver rather rudimentary depictions of youthful exuberance in the opera's early sections.
After delivering an exquisite "Ah, fuyez, douce image," where he tries to forget Manon, Beczala enters into the work's intense reconciliation scene. This one has spectators fanning themselves from the heat that Netrebko and Beczala give off -- as well as from conductor Fabio Luisi, who gets all of Massenet's drama, romance and gaiety.
The frivolity of the era comes through as well, especially visually, through sweetly warbling coquettes Pousette (Anne-Carolyn Bird), Javotte (Jennifer Black), and Rosette (Ginger Costa-Jackson). As for the men, David Pittsinger as Count des Grieux, Christophe Mortagne as the trouble-making Guillot de Morfontaine, and Paulo Szot as Manon's changeable cousin, Lescaut, air their impassioned melodies proficiently.
Unfortunately, Chantal Thomas' sets aren't especially successful. They offer a look that isn't quite minimalist, but which relies in large measure on ramps precluding steady footing. For the St. Sulpice cathedral, there are only three rectangular columns leaning far enough to imply they could topple at any moment. While the sets are meant to suggest the imbalance of the times, they contribute negatively to this slightly imbalanced but mostly pleasing production.