Argiris, Aris


Manon LescautGiacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Carlo Rizzi, Mariuz Treliński, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, Giovanni Furlanetto, Aris Argiris, Julien Dran, Alexander Kravets, Guillaume Antoine, Camille Merckx, Amalia Avilán, Anne-Fleur Inizian, Audrey Kessedjian, Julie Mossay | La Monnaie Internet Streaming, January 2013

The story is the same one that opera-goers will be more familiar with from Massenet’s Manon (1884), but former filmmaker Mariuz Treliński’s modern-day updating of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) transports it into a world that will be more familiar with cinema-goers who have seen the David Lynch films ‘Blue Velvet‘ and ‘Lost Highway‘. Following on the heels of La Monnaie’s similarly hard-hitting and highly acclaimed modern takes on the sordid reality of two other opera heroines who are debased by a hypocritical and exploitative patriarchal society - Lulu and Violetta - Manon Lescaut has two very hard acts to follow. If inevitably it can’t touch those outstanding productions, the fault is less to do with the casting or the direction than the fact that Puccini’s early work - and his first real opera success - falls well short of Berg’s and Verdi’s masterpieces.

As elaborately deconstructed and as beautifully designed as it may be - Boris Kudlicka’s sets matching and complementing the bright, clean, colourful neon-lit modernist productions we’ve come to associate with La Monnaie of late (La Traviata, Lulu, Rusalka) - Mariuz Treliński isn’t able to make quite as much of an impression on Manon Lescaut, and doesn’t find a method that gives any new meaning or new life to the work. It’s not for want of trying, for a lack of ideas or for any shortcomings in the material. The Abbé Prevost’s scandalous novel, banned on publication in 1731, provides plenty of scandal, adventure and colourful locations in its lurid melodrama, and these are factors that can’t help but be enhanced to a considerable degree when the strange worlds of the filmmakers David Lynch and Luis Buñuel are brought into the mix.

Much of the story in this production then takes place in a railway station, or is framed by an opening and closing in a railway station with elements of it interjecting at certain points - a payphone, a bench of waiting room chairs, a subway map and timetable - in a way suggests that it might even be all taking place in the head of Des Grieux, who lies sleeping at the opening here. Trains race past through the underground station to strobing light and a digital station clock marks the passing of time, effects representing the place where the story starts and the beginning of what turns out to be a long journey for Des Grieux. He immediately falls in love with Manon at first sight, rescuing her from a fate in a convent, or worse, left in the hands of a lecherous rich old man (Geronte de Ravoir based rather disturbingly on Frank Booth as played by Dennis Hopper with oxygen mask in ‘Blue Velvet‘). It’s an encounter and an infatuation that, for better or worse, determines the direction of the rest of his life.

Puccini’s version of the Manon story - the libretto worked on by numerous uncredited writers including Ruggero Leoncavallo and Luigi Illica - differs only in minor respects that one might consider regrettable only if familiar with the Massenet version. The modest little table that provides such poignancy in Massenet’s opera is only referred to in passing here, since Puccini’s version excises the period of Des Grieux and Manon’s humble little sojourn in Paris, saving Manon’s arrest and deportation to America for her attempt to leave Geronte’s apartment with her jewels and luxury goods when Des Grieux reappears in her life. In Puccini’s version, Manon doesn’t die in Le Harve while waiting for the prison ship, but is transported to America, and Des Grieux with her, where she succumbs to a horrible death, dying of thirst in the desert outside New Orleans. In Treliński’s production, obviously, they never physically leave the train station.

Puccini makes this version very much his own, finding in it material, isolated situations at different time periods and a structure that he would put to work in a much more satisfactory manner and with considerably more artistry in La Bohème. Musically however, although it does have some lyrical and heartfelt moments, Manon Lescaut is a much weaker work, the score almost insipid, with few melodies, arrangements or character definition that can compare to Puccini’s later work. It’s unfortunate that the composer, at this stage in his career, isn’t musically up to the material, because otherwise all the elements for the melodrama of the tragic Puccini heroine are all in place. That suits Mariuz Treliński, who is able to work with characters that are less one-dimensional than in the Massenet version. His modern, fractured narrative construction recognises Manon’s position as a commodity whose vanity and materialism - much like Lulu - plays a part in her fate or at least in terms of how men are able to exploit her weaknesses. To fit with his concept however, the director imposes more emphasis on Manon as an elusive movie “femme fatale”, an “Obscure Object of Desire” to fire the passions of unwary men.

Manon Lescaut is certainly a lesser Puccini work, but it’s possible to imagine that it could be made to work in the right setting and with the right singers. I’m not sure however that Treliński’s ideas work entirely with the nature of Puccini’s scoring, and the singing in some areas seemed to have a similar problem reconciling the characters as they are defined in this production with the musical descriptions. Eva-Maria Westbroek has the right kind of voice for the stronger Puccini heroine (like Minnie in La Fanciulla del West), but she sounded a little breathy here in places and not always fully committed to what she was singing. Treliński’s directions to the singer that she must be an “impossible puzzle” and that “each scene must be played as if by a completely different actor”, might not have helped matters. When required however, she was certainly able to rise to the occasion. Brandon Jovanovich however was simply superb, demonstrating a gorgeous tone with wonderful voice control. With that strong, lyrical voice, and a well-judged dramatic performance, he was able to be expressive in a way that brought out the impetuosity of his character and infatuation, making this production a great deal more credible that it might otherwise have been. His indisposition on one of the nights during this run (a performance broadcast on Belgian radio) when he was replaced after the interval by Hector Sandoval, must surely have been a surreal experience straight out of Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway‘ or indeed Buñuel’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire‘ that could surely only have enhanced Mariuz Treliński’s treatment.

La Monnaie’s production of Manon Lescaut is available to view from their free on-line streaming service until 4th March 2013.  Subtitles are in Dutch and French only. Their next streamed opera is Lucrezia Borgia, available for three weeks month from March 22nd.

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2010 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Christine Rice, Bryan Hymel, Aris Argiris, Maija Kovalevska, Dawid Kimberg, Nicolas Courjal, Elena Xanthoudakis, Paula Murrihy, Adrian Clarke, Harry Nicoll | Real-D Inc

To my mind, there are two ways to play Carmen for maximum effect – one is slow and sultry, the other is fast and passionate. I will admit though that I haven’t seen a production of Carmen in well over ten years, so I was prepared to accept that there may be other aspects that could be brought out of the opera. With a 3-D version on a theatrical run in the cinema, it seemed like a perfect opportunity then to consider what other ‘dimensions’ could indeed be found in Bizet’s opera. While the Royal Opera House production did indeed reveal that there are indeed deeper elements to an opera with more than its share of terrific, universally-known, crowd-pleasing tunes, it never really settled however on any one approach, and, perhaps most disappointingly – although perhaps not unexpectedly considering the experience of 3-D movies at the cinema – it failed to convince that the 3-D experience is anything more than a gimmick that doesn’t work all that well.

This is a production that never really comes to life, and the use of 3-D, in an attempt to bring you closer to the experience, doesn’t make up for failings in the performance itself. Opera already has an extra dimension that cinema and theatre don’t traditionally have in their acting and storytelling, and that is the expression of sentiments, actions and themes through the music and the singing. There is nothing lacking in opera – and if anything the 3-D production confirms this – that needs to be brought out by any other means than the interpretation of the performers under the direction of the conductor and stage director. Francesca Zambello’s stage direction for this production of Carmen is in this respect fairly conventional, working with the opera and playing to its traditional strengths, a composite almost of every cliché associated with the opera’s vision of Spanish gypsy culture, but not really having anything new to contribute to it, no modern reinterpretation and – I suppose we should be thankful for this at least – nothing added to make it more accessible for either television viewing or 3-D cinema projection. It’s a traditional, old-favourite opera, and it’s played very safely.

As to whether the performance, more importantly, gets to the emotional core of the opera – personally, I found it unconvincing. The pace of Act 1 opts, I presume, for slow and sultry, with gypsy girls aplenty, legs spread, arms akimbo, skirts hitched up and much heaving cleavage on show during la Havanaise – “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, but the real expression of the underlying passions and temptations are better expressed in the music and singing, and here it just feels lifeless with a tempo that drags. There is little wrong with the singing of Christine Rice and Bryan Hymel in the principal roles, but whether they felt the pressure of performing before cameras that get in much closer than usual in filmed opera – although there was no toning down of theatre mannerisms – the performances felt perfunctory, never getting beneath the surface of whatever dark passions drive the characters to their tragic fates. Only Maija Kovalevska in the role of Micaela, brought out that other dimension I was looking for in the opera in her Act 3 “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, showing that there are more noble sentiments and a more pure love can exist, but that it doesn’t really stand a chance against the all-consuming lust and the jealousy that fires Don José and Carmen.

Carmen

If the lust doesn’t come across convincingly, the painful jealousy that is going to lead to the tragic conclusion is there also to some degree in Act 3 of this production, but it’s too little and too late when the connection that brings Don José and Carmen together hasn’t been sufficiently established. To its credit then this production at least convinced me that there are other ways of playing Carmen than slow and sultry or fast and passionate, and that really, a balanced production should incorporate all those elements, as well as the more noble sentiments of Micaela’s love and a mother’s concern for her son. All those elements are there in this production, but none of them seem to reach the heights demanded, nor indeed work in common accord. The failure to achieve this is likewise across the board, the staging not really finding a way of exploring these emotions in any depth, the singing and acting feeling largely perfunctory, and the filming for the screen never succeeding in bringing it to life.

The RealD 3-D filming, directed for the screen by Julian Napier, was extremely disappointing in this respect. The most effective use of the 3-D effects were backstage at the start of the opera, where the lighting is strong enough to set figures in the foreground against the background, and in the opening shot on stage when an imprisoned Don José stretches out his hands pleadingly – one of the few original touches that indicate that both deaths foretold in the Carmen’s card-reading come to pass. Elsewhere, backgrounds were black or too dark, and figures were not close enough in the foreground to achieve anything like the same effect, save for the very occasional close-up arrangement, and only one or two obvious attempts to project images towards the camera. Where the 3-D also fared badly in comparison to regular High Definition live broadcasts and particularly with the exceptionally high standard of Blu-ray discs, was in the artificiality of the shimmery digital image that was created, one that also blurred excessively in movement and, even when static, failed to produce a sharp or detailed enough image.