Until then, this Manon, first seen at London's Royal Opera, is a mixed success; its middling-budget sets aren't so impressive on the larger Met stage, and its imagery has less pleasing associations for Americans (one scene looks like a cross between the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis and a ramp in the 42d Street subway station). Though Netrebko's pipes have been perfectly suited to the role in the past, her coloratura singing in the first two acts lacks its previous ease. Her high notes still have a thrill, but miss their target.
Once Manon's downfall begins, though, Netrebko has never been better, not just vocally but as a total operatic package. Her beefier chest voice is at home in these scenes, but more important, she projects an under-the-surface desperation as she urges her lover to gamble for their lives amid a claustrophobic set that literally suggests that the walls are closing in. Then in the final scene, when the convicted, degraded Manon arrives in a heap of rags on a desolate road, you feel her devastation so strongly that her death is a blessing.
One key coconspirator in this operatic moment - the sort one always hopes for - is Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who finds musical strangeness in the final scenes that makes you believe this is the greatest opera ever. No small feat, since French opera is like a souffle: The ingredients are commonplace, and you can't always count on it to rise. At least on Tuesday's performance at the Met, this one did. As Manon's lover, relative newcomer Piotr Beczala is major plus with his classic Italianate tenor sound. Though Paulo Szot (as Manon's cousin and chaperone) is vocally dwarfed by his costars at times, he conveys the alternately manic and resigned physicality of one who is in over his head.
Even when the production is at its iffiest - with Chantal Thomas' sometimes-skeletal sets - the story's intricacies are captured. That may not be a top priority with most operagoers, but it is a significant factor when the composer's responses to the plot are as keen as they are in Manon. You feel Massenet meeting his 19th-century middle-class audience halfway with frequent tune repetition, but in a wonderfully unified score: Each role has a beautifully circumscribed family of melodies. Even the obligatory ballet is integrated, with Pelly underscoring the brutality of this world when the dancers are abducted by men of the ruling class. One wishes for more inspiration of this sort, while being grateful that nothing gets in the opera's way.
"Manon" will be simulcast
at noon Saturday and 6:30 p.m. April 25. Information: www.metfamily.org or http://www.fathomevents.com/PerformingArts/series/metropolitanopera.aspx
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.