After 20 years or so of mere dabbling in the romantic French repertory — “Pelleas et Melisande” set on the beach at Malibu, Offenbach mistranslated into cutesy English — the local operatic forces have finally found the accent. Like a warm French kiss that you never want to end, the company’s current staging of Massenet’s exquisitely tear-jerking masterpiece holds you in place for its all-too-brief three hours and releases you, sadder and infinitely wiser, far too soon.
Credit falls ostensibly to its starry cast — carefully, perhaps even eloquently, marshaled under Placido Domingo’s baton — and above all to the glam duo of Russian-born soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican heartthrob Rolando Villazon (whose 2005 “Romeo et Juliette” here, with its near-nude bedroom scene, triumphed over a merely OK production).
Beyond the admitted wonders of their contributions, however, this is a production with its own wit and style.
Never mind that director Vincent Paterson concocts a movieland framework, surrounding the action with onstage stagehands who move light fixtures and serve in a strange way to bridge a gap between operatic time and ours. What it does, more than anything, is to bring out the essence of the central characters — the confusion of identities that drives both Manon and her lover, des Grieux, into and out of each other’s lives so readily, so tragically.
But you don’t need all this psychology to take in the wonders of this altogether enchanting, long-overdue excursion toward the peak of French opera. The young lovers of this dream cast lay it out for you: the dazzling Netrebko, with the crystalline perfection of her high tones — at rest or, in one memorable moment, on the high ropes at the Hotel Transylvanie; the eternally youthful Villazon, spinning out the velvet phrases while all but standing on his head. Here is assurance enough that some days remain on opera’s calendar.