The raw material of Manon Lescaut is passion. If you catch yourself pondering or evaluating or judging anything during a performance of Puccini’s first big success, then you can claim your money back in the box office: you’ve been defrauded. The wigs and crinolines might pose an extra challenge for the audience to reach this emotional status, but considering the plot (a girl under 18 is sentenced to transportation to the colonies for indecent behavior), one would have to use a great deal of imagination to update it in any way – my suggestion: make Manon a refugee or something like that and you might stage a very dramatic airport scene.
Director Hans Neuenfels might have a legitimate interest for opera, but does he really like it? In his stagings, his efforts are basically concentrated on trying to rescue the librettos from its bourgeois and decadent values (yes, so last century…) by replacing the setting, the dialogues or stage instructions by superficially deep statements the shadow of truth of which can be found in the libretto as it is by someone with three functional brain cells. This evening, for instance, we have the usual laboratory lighting and décors, a chorus dressed as silver-clad teletubbies with red wigs, a Manon with costumes that vary from an outfit tailor-made for a missionary to those of a make-up sales-assistant in a department story, not to mention that the physical attraction here is left to imagination (although both singers in the leading roles have some chemistry going on between them). Considering the credentials involved, I was expecting a particularly repelling Geronte or a powerful deportation scene, but it was all very sanitized under cold lighting.
One could say – there is still Puccini’s music to make it all work. Not so fast, I am afraid. Faced with a lightweight cast, conductor Alain Altinoglu made everything in his powers to provide some orchestral lushness within the limits of restricted volume. He was often successful, but at the point he reached the intermezzo the whole calculation exercise proved too well-behaved: the crescendo was so managed and groomed that the climax just did not happen (you can imagine how the sexual depiction in the act II duet felt like…). Although the circumstances in the video from the Covent Garden were not exactly ideal, Giuseppe Sinopoli had it permanently on white heat, forcing Kiri Te Kanawa out of her comfort zone into the arms of an ideally inspired Plácido Domingo.
The fact that Kristine Opolais is no Renata Tebaldi is not a tragedy per se – many famous Manons weren’t either (the discography alone shows names of sopranos who sang Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, such as Licia Albanese or Mirella Freni). However – I am not old enough to vouch for Albanese – Freni’s mezzo forte would eat Opolais’s fortissimo for breakfast. What I “heard” today was a voice opaque in color, limited in volume and highly manipulated in both ends of her range. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to speak of any interpretation or even musical values (a high rate of false entries make it even more doubtful). I would say this is not her repertoire and will never be, but her biography says she is an Aida, a Butterfly… Hmm…
On paper, Jonas Kaufmann – in spite of the baritonal color or his tenor – is a bit on the light side for Des Grieux, but that was not at all a disadvantage – his tenor, as a whole, is sizeable enough for the part and he withstood the demands of some of the most testing passages in the score with admirable stamina. Anyway, this is not what I want to write about his performance; the reason why it rescued the whole evening from its rigor mortis was the fact that he sings it more interestingly than anybody else. Every little phrase is sung to the complete rendition of both its musical and dramatic values, by means of his customary control of dynamics and legato – all that without any hint of affectation and with real gusto for Italian style. Markus Eiche is an unexpected piece of casting as Lescaut. Although some high notes are tense and straight in sound, he sounded quite idiomatic in it. The voice lacks a bit volume – especially in his low register – but he compensated by incisive delivery of the text and his animation.