Yerna, Alexise


ManonJules Massenet - Manon

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Patrick Davin, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Silvia Vázquez, Ismaël Jordi, Massimiliano Gagliardo, Marcel Vanaud, Guy de Mey, Roger Joakim, Alexise Yerna, Sabine Conzen, Marie-Laure Coenjaerts | Live Internet Streaming, 20 June 2012

Manon is all about the impetuosity and the folly of youth, the love of the glamour of the here and now, living in the moment, wanting it all, making mistakes along the way and taking all that comes with it with no regrets. That at least is how it is for Manon Lescaut herself, a 16 year-old about to enter a convent and about to see those delicious possibilities put forever out of reach. For Chevalier des Grieux, the young student who sees her, falls in love with her and sweeps her away to Paris, there’s evidently some of the same youthful impetuosity, but he also has dreams and illusions about the future in a manner that isn’t quite compatible with the ambitions of Manon, and it’s in the conflict of their ideals and their experience with the realities of the world that ends up destroying the brief period of their little idyll - the innocence of youth is fleeting - and ultimately leads to tragedy.

The setting isn’t that important then, since these are universal characteristics and their consequences are all too recognisable and inevitable. What is important as far as making Massenet’s opera work on the stage is finding the right tone that captures that sense of youthful idealism, flightiness, inconstancy, innocence and flirtatiousness in the first half that develops into something darker and more substantial in the second. On that account, the orchestra of the Opéra Liège, if perhaps a little sluggish in some earlier parts of the opera, give an overall fine account of Massenet’s deceptively light five-act opera-comique in this new production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, conductor Patrick Davin guiding them particularly well through in the darker passions of the latter half.

Manon must be seen as a journey in this respect, and if the first half feels slight, that’s how Massenet composed it, with its real strength and beauty only becoming apparent by the time we get to the conclusion. It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Liège’s current director in residence Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera structures the production to come around in a full circle, the Prologue and initial scene of Act 1 opening where the opera closes, with Manon and des Grieux meeting again at Le Havre and looking back over the happiness of their time together, the past initially behind a screen but gradually coming to life again as if it has all been ‘relived’ by Manon in her final moments at the end of Act 5. The flashback idea is by no means an original one - there was even a hint of it in Mazzonis di Pralafera’s last production for Liège, La Traviata - but there is a valid reason for it here that is echoed in the repeated musical references at the end of both works, that is vital for tying the whole work together, blending the joy with the tragedy in a manner that makes the journey all the more significant. It’s a typically perceptive response to the work on the part of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, and it’s one that helps carry the weaker elements in the production - although, really, there are few of those in this excellent production.

There’s at least not much to be concerned about as far as the singing is concerned. Manon demands two strong and capable singers of absolute conviction and the casting of two young Spanish singers, Silvia Vázquez and Ismaël Jordi, certainly meets those requirements admirably. Both need to be capable of conveying that sense of youthful innocence and wonder, capable of being swept off their feet by the discovery of new sensations, caught up in the glamour of themselves and the possibilities open to them. They both however need to be capable of demonstrating a deeper emotional register for the second half of the work, and again, there are no serious failings there. As Manon Lescaut, Silvia Vázquez has a strong enough voice and is capable of hitting all the emotional and vocal requirements, only sounding slightly out of pitch at the highest points. She carries the transformation of Manon from the impetuous youth of Act 1 to social butterfly on the Cour-la-reine promenade in Act 3 with the absolute conviction necessary.

Ismaël Jordi, who impressed me in the alternate cast for the Liceu’s 2011-12 production of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, again shows himself to be a terrific up-and-coming lyric tenor as des Grieux here. His acting isn’t always the strongest, but some responsibility for this must go to the director, who, like his La Traviata, doesn’t always find something for the principals to do other than project out to the audience. When you are getting singing however like Jordi’s Act 3 ‘Je suis seul! …Ah fuyez, douce image!‘, as fine a rendition of Manon and des Grieux’s duet ‘N’est-ce plus ma main‘ and as powerful a scene as the one here between des Grieux and his father - wonderfully sung by Marcel Vanaud - those concerns are rendered relatively minor by the quality of the vocal expression of the sentiments the characters are experiencing.

It’s actually in this magnificent performance of the second scene of Act 3 that you can really see the production and the qualities of the structure and singing start to come together, reflecting the strengths of the work itself. Placing the single interval in the middle of Act 3 proves to be most effective in this regard, as there is a natural separation there between the different tones of the two halves of the opera. The sets and costumes are, for the most part, functional, never really establishing any unique character but, always busy with characters, chorus and extras, it works perfectly well for the purposes of the work with the overall structure of the piece. It’s well enough designed however so that the first three acts flow together with scarcely a pause for a scene change, which is quite a feat. One might like a bit more time to get to know the characters and enjoy the scenes - I think there may have been a few careful cuts in the dialogue passages here and there - but in a way it reflects the rush of youth, and, in the end, you come back to see these scenes through the light of experience later, which is perfectly appropriate and indeed well-considered for achieving the maximum impact, the opera ending powerfully with Manon returning to ‘notre petite table‘ of Act 2.

Manon is the final free Live Internet Streaming Broadcast of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie at Liège’s 2011-12 season at the temporary structure of the Palais Opéra while renovation work is being carried out at the Théâtre Royal. Recordings are available to view again in full on the Dailymotion site for one weekend, usually a few weeks after the initial broadcast. The 2012-12 Season, recently announced on their web-site, has a great deal to look forward to on their return to the main opera house, including Verdi’s I Due Foscari and rarely performed works by César Franck and André-Modeste Grétry.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Luciano Acocella, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Annick Massis, Xavier Cortes, Giovanni Meoni, Alexise Yerna, Cristiano Cremonini, Julie Bailly, Roger Joakim, Ziyan Atfeh, Patrick Delcour, Marcel Arpots, Iouri Lel, Marc Tissons | Live Internet Streaming, 26 April 2012

It’s almost becoming de rigueur for nudity and topless women to feature in opera productions these days, but up until Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera’s production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, I’d never seen it done before in La Traviata. A popular repertory work, Verdi’s La Traviata is usually done in a straightforward traditional period manner, but Verdi - himself subject to gossip and rumour about his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi at the time of writing the work - wanted the opera to challenge contemporary attitudes towards unconventional relationships, and the frank directness of the La Traviata was indeed quite shocking for its time. Now all we have to “shock” an audience is a flash of a topless woman. I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses for the practice, but you can see how it could be valid in the context of Verdi’s other shocker of this period, Rigoletto, where nudity featured during the orgies of the Duke of Mantua in David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House, and I suppose the same case could be made for La Traviata. When you think about it, Violetta Valéry’s profession as a courtesan - the “fallen woman” of the opera’s title, necessarily treated with circumspection due to censorship restrictions in Verdi’s time - is likewise often also delicately glossed over in stage productions. Not so here.

One could make a case then that the use of nudity in all three acts in the Liège production is not just there for shock or titillation, but that it’s relevant to the themes and tied in with the structure of La Traviata itself. Originally titled ‘Love and Death’ during its composition, these two themes are vital to the impact of the work and they are where Verdi places the most emphasis in his scoring, with Violetta considering the possibilities of true love in the beautiful ‘Ah, fors’è lui’ in Act I, and reflecting on her death in ‘Addio del passato’ in Act III. On their own, certainly, these pieces are strong enough to encompass the beauty, the tragedy and complexity of emotions that have been engendered in Violetta over the short period of her time with Alfredo, but if the staging can draw the attention of the audience to what is being expressed, then so much the better. In Act I then, the aria is set alongside beside the revelry of the guests on a huge bed during ‘Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora’, while in Act III, there is an echo of a reminder of these times as Violetta hears the revelry of party-goers from her death bed. Act II meanwhile uses the nudity effect of the “bella ritrosetta” (“saucy little beauty”) to emphasis the connection between Love and Death in the play of Gastone and the Bullfighters, which otherwise seems like a piece of entertainment unconnected with the work.

Traviata

Unfortunately, while there is relevance in how this all fits in with the opera and its themes - scored brilliantly by Verdi at his most melodic and inventive - there’s not a great deal else that stands out in the direction of this production, which struggles to find any interesting way to respond to the challenge of staging the familiar settings of the work. The first scene of Act II in particular really drags along. As heartfelt as the emotions are during the long scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont as he tries to persuade her to give up her love affair with his son for the sake of his reputation and his family, and as well sung as these key moments of appeal are from both sides here during ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ and ‘Ah, dite alla giovine’, they gain nothing from having the two principals sit at the front of the stage and sing out towards the audience. There needs to be a little more connection felt, or at least tension between them over their respective desires and fears, and that’s hard to achieve without some good stage direction.

Aside from the use of brief nudity, the other two acts and the second scene of Act II then are otherwise unexceptional, but the staging does at least serve its function reasonably well. Even if the budget doesn’t always stretch to elaborate sets and designs, the Opéra at Liège under the direction of Mazzonis di Pralafera, seem to me at least to always manage to include a few original touches that allow them to strike a strong balance between traditional theatricality and some personal character. There are a few other minor touches here - Alfredo clutching Violetta’s bloodstained white nightgown during the overture, the guests at the society parties seated as if to watching the unfolding of the latest theatrical developments in society - which are interesting without straining the traditional narrative too much. The same principal would apply, it would seem, to the casting of singers who more than meet the demands of the work if not perhaps with any great distinction. As Alfredo, Xavier Cortes sings well - clear, strong and resonant, and Giovanni Meoni is a grave and dignified Germont Snr., but neither bring any great interpretation to the roles and they don’t look like they have been given a great deal of acting direction either.

Traviata

Demonstrating however, in line with the rest of the production, that they know exactly the right places to place the emphasis, the performance of the orchestra under Luciano Acocella is marvellous and Annick Massis stands out as an exceptional Violetta Valéry. Even during the otherwise dull staging of the Germont/Violetta duets in Act II, the tempo and balance is considered throughout to give the performers the opportunity to really enter into the emotions of this critical scene. If the staging doesn’t work in favour of the singers there, elsewhere it has all the necessary impact, particularly in those aforementioned key moments of Act I and III, and their fine delivery by Annick Massis. She perhaps doesn’t have the fragile delicacy of Violetta in Act I, hitching up her skirt, hopping on a table with a glass of champagne and kicking off her shoes for her ‘Sempre libera’, but it captures the nature of the extraordinary new sensations awakened within her and it’s sung with strength, passion and character. On the flipside of those emotions, her ‘Addio del passato’ is filled with all the longing and heartrending emotion that likewise underpins the strength of the third Act. It’s a superb performance.

If the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s production then doesn’t always demonstrate great originality, it does nonetheless manage to find its own character within the limitations of the setting, but more significantly, it knows exactly where to place the emphasis for the maximum impact and it takes great care with the casting to ensure that those moments can be achieved. With Annick Massis as an impressive Violetta Valéry, particularly strong in the Act III conclusion, and with Luciano Acocella directing the orchestra through a terrific performance that draws all those considerable qualities out of Verdi’s great score, this production, broadcast live via the website of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, amounted to a very fine and occasionally impressive La Traviata.