Posts Tagged ‘Puccini’s Manon Lescaut’

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 store, 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 made 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 of 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 animation.

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Gilbert Deflo’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut  (a co-production with the Deutsche Oper Berlin actually) is entirely free of any Regie approach – it just tells the story in some sort of foolproof way that involves minimalistic sets/elaborate costumes combo. There is not much of a Personenregie either, but I would rather say that this wise choice under the circumstances. In any case, some things could be refined: for instance, when Des Grieux comes to prevent Manon to board the ship to Louisiana, the other deportees act as nothing were happening (what is VERY unlikely). Also, Geronte has the gait of an elderly man, but has no problem in reaching things on the floor and then getting up.

Pier Giorgio Morandi is usually a reliable conductor in this repertoire – and he did get things moving on, but “passion” is not the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra’s specialty. The score requires plenty of that, but here the replacement was “brassiness”. As a result, the overall impression was of bureaucratic noisiness. At least, singers were given enough leeway to take care of the interpretation department.

Svetla Vassileva is something of a director’s dream casting for the role of Manon: she has the looks and – although her Manon is too much of a good girl (at least in this production) – the attitude. I would not say she truly has the voice for it, but her lyric soprano can deal with it without much problem. Her soprano has a Freni-like shimmering quality that can get quite vibrant at times, but a very warmth and velventiness of her soprano eschews hints of what some call “Slavic” vibrato. She manages the passaggio very adeptly and deals with the low tessitura seamlessly and without any vulgarity. She can still be overshadowed by the orchestra down there (as in Sola, perduta, abbandonata), but compensates with sensitive shading and beautiful mezza voce now and then, not to mention flexibility and charm in the act II gavotte. The natural feeling for Italian style and the fact that she seems to inhabit her text and notes adds up to a pleasing if not truly moving performance. I have the impression that purely lyric roles would show her more advantageously. After seeing Gustavo Porta as an unsubtle Canio some months ago, I was not really looking forward for this afternoon. I am glad to report that his Des Grieux was a different story. I found the voice stronger-centered and a bit darker in sound. As in the NNT’s Pagliacci, he deals with heroic high notes without effort, but proved to be capable of some nuance too: he scaled down for piano quite often and even floated mezza voce once or twice. His line was also clean of some vulgarities some tenors sell as “verismo style”, but calling it “elegant” would be a stretch. There are moments of flutter and he seemed a bit tired in No, pazzo son. Dalibor Jenis was a congenial Lescaut, in particularly good voice today.

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The title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a tough piece of casting. It is clearly a part for a soprano lirico spinto, but its constant shifting into the lower end of the soprano range will always be a test for any lyric soprano. I must confess that my heart beats for only one Manon in the discography, Renata Tebaldi. Only she is able to keep loveliness and femininity down there. I acknowledge Maria Callas’s and Renata Scotto’s brilliantly crafted accounts of this role, but the sound alone of their voices does not play the trick for me. Manon is the kind of woman who can turn all heads in her direction the minute she walks in. If the singer’s tone lacks this inbuilt sexiness, she is just a clever girl pretending to be a beautiful one. And that is definitely not what is wanted here.

Karita Mattila, for example, has it – her warm velvety soprano is sensuousness itself. Her In quelle trine morbide knocked the audience out in its sexy daydreaminess, for instance. However, at least at this stage of her career, Mattila’s voice shies away both at the bottom and at the top of her range. Her low notes only pierce through if thrown in chest voice and her acuti lack tone and risk to go off track. She often disguises that with dramatic effects, but the frequentation of heavy roles is not doing any favour to her voice. In terms of characterization, her Manon has a rather modern approach – something of a Paris Hilton (prison scene included) without the inheritance. She performs the concept with skill, particularly in act II, when she is not afraid of going larger than life. Her closing scene, however, was very subdued and both soprano and conductor went for a more exhausted than desperate Sola, perduta, abandonata.

I was suspicious about Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux. This is a tenor formerly identified with bel canto roles tackling a rather heavy part, but I have to say his instincts were right. His bright tenor showed no discomfort with this writing and he sang stylishly and sensitively throughout. Dwayne Croft was a rich-toned Lescaut and Sean Panikkar displayed a healthy, likeable tenor in the small role of Edmondo.

James Levine is an exemplary Puccinian, building rich textured sonorities without drowning his singer in orchestral loudness – his subtle handling of the intermezzo was most refreshing.

The old production with Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes has aged rather well – I have to confess that Manon is one of those operas I prefer to see in a traditional staging – its minuets, wigs, deportations to the colonies etc do not go with cocktail parties, telephones and airplanes.

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