[This release of a 2001 Paris Opéra production was originally issued on TDK in 2003. It was wonderful then and it's still wonderful. The following is my 2003 review of the earlier issue, with a couple of additions.]
So far this is the only 'Manon' to make it to DVD. [Since I wrote this there have been releases with Netrebko/Villazón and Gruberova/Araiza.] But you really don't have to wait for a better one to come along; it will likely be the one to have for a long time. It comes from a June 2001 performance at the Opéra National National de Paris/Opéra Bastille and stars Renée Fleming as Manon and Marcelo Álvarez as des Grieux.
Fleming says that Manon is one of her favorite roles, and I can believe it. She invests the character with a good deal of feeling, and although she seems a little old and not quite giddy enough to be playing the simple school-girl in Act I, she gets better and better as the action proceeds. Her singing, of course, is nonpareil. Indeed, for me the action doesn't really catch fire until the final scene of Act II (although 'Nous vivrons à Paris,' in Act I, is exciting and beautifully sung by the young lovers) when Manon contemplates giving up des Grieux and letting him return to his family, in 'Adieu, notre petite table,' followed by des Grieux's 'En fermant les yeux,' sung gorgeously by Álvarez.
The staging triumphs in the two 'public' scenes--the Cours la Reine scene (Act III, 1) and the gambling scene at the Hotel Transylvanie (Act IV). Each of these scenes is so full of visual stimulation that it might even be easy to miss the main action except for the expert television direction of François Roussilon. The baroque-style ballet (choreography by Ana Yepes, and occurring in the Cours la Reine scene) is an engaging use of the music--a larger group of formal dancers alternating with a trio of solo dancers, each movement fitting Massenet's expert pastiche of 18th-century music perfectly.
The scene (III,1) between the hero's father, Comte des Grieux (sung sympathetically by Alain Vernhes) and Manon is touching and sets up the reconciliation (III, 2) at St. Sulpice between the new Abbé des Grieux (whose 'Ah, fuyez douce image' brings tears to one's eyes) and Manon. If only they could have known that being in love and managing one's money often don't go together! The final act when des Grieux is gotten off by his father from charges of cheating but Manon is found guilty and about to be deported is heartbreaking, and again Fleming and Álvarez outdo themselves.
Lescaut is sung and acted effectively by Jean-Luc Chaignaud, de Brétigny by Franck Ferrari. It was wonderful to see the venerable Michel Sénéchal as the old roué, Guillot de Morfontaine; the old rascal can still act up a storm.
The spectacularly talented Jésus Lopez-Cobos led the musical forces brilliantly. I imagine symphony patrons in Cincinnati still mourn his departure from their city. Sets and costumes, brilliantly effective and richly sumptuous, are by William Orlandi. The inventive staging is by Gilbert Deflo.
I will not forget any of the wonderful recorded Manons I've treasured over the years. My first was Janine Micheau in an otherwise dreadful recording from the 50s. I've more recently come to value the 1929 Opéra-Comique recording with Germaine Féraldy (Manon) and Joseph Rogatchewsky (des Grieux), conducted by Elie Cohen. And the still wonderful recording with Beverly Sills and Nicolai Gedda. I missed the one with Alfredo Kraus and Ileana Cotrubas, but more recently liked, although a little less, the Italianate 'Manon' with Gheorghiu and Alagna.
Do not hesitate. This will be the 'Manon' to have for, I expect, years to come. It captures one of Renée Fleming's signature roles and shows off one of our rising tenors, Marcelo Álvarez, in a marvelous performance.
2 DVD discs, TT=164 mins; Sound: PCM stereo, DD5.1; Menu language: English; Subtitle languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese; Picture format: 16:9; Region code: 0 (worldwide); DVD 9 or DVD 5/NTSC