Rizzi, Carlo


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.

FanciullaGiacomo Puccini - La Fanciulla del West

Nederlandse Opera 2009 | Carlo Rizzi, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Lucio Gallo, Zoran Todorovich, Roman Sadnik, Diogenes Randes | Opus Arte

I haven’t so much as blinked at some modernised productions of operas set in the most unlikely of environments, but somehow I’ve never been able to get my head around the idea of an opera set in the Wild West - and yet that’s the original setting for Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. So if the Nederlandse Opera want to update the theme of the quest for gold conflated with the treasure of a virginal young woman into the more modern-day setting of Wall Street (references to pickaxes, mines and Wells Fargo notwithstanding), well, in principle, that’s fine by me - there’s no reason why, with a bit of invention and imagination, that shouldn’t work …and even if the opera opens in what looks like a leather gay bar, well, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily see that as unlikely in this Puccini opera, particularly when Johnson makes his entrance among all those rugged men at the Pink Flamingo (I think it’s called that) asking who is going to curl his hair… And wait until you see the set for Act 2! There’s more camp here than a Red Indian Reservation.

La Fancuilla del West isn’t ever going to be considered one of Puccini’s best operas. It’s not his most memorable composition and with a subject that seems better suited to a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, it doesn’t lend itself to the same highs and lows of love, passion and betrayal that you’ll find in Madama Butterfly, La Bohème or Tosca. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the best vehicle for the seriousness of purpose of the composer towards adapting to new modern styles of composition. The Rogers and Hammerstein comparison isn’t really fair however (and a bit snobbish), nor is the criticism that Puccini has abandoned the beautiful melodies of his former work. And if this production, conducted by Carlo Rizzi and directed for the stage by Nicholaus Lehnhoff, brings out anything, it’s the qualities of the score and the varieties of tone that have a delicacy that belies the rather crude narrative and unimaginative storyline.

As for the production, well, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work. If the director had really been committed to going for the Wall Street idea and really set it in modern financial district locations, the production might have been pulled it off (as Michael Haneke did with his production of Don Giovanni for the Paris Opera a few years ago), but this staging is half-hearted and uncommitted, a widescreen Technicolor tribute to Americana that has little rhyme or reason, resulting in the usual hodge-podge of anachronisms. It’s already a Western - how much more American does it really need to be? The playing however is fine and the singing generally good, Eva-Maria Westbroek demonstrating the qualities that Puccini manages to bring to the role of Minnie.

The image quality of Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release isn’t as impressive as other HD presentations, the bold coloured lighting not allowing a lot of detail to be shown, but there are no real issues with the transfer either. Much more important, and where opera on Blu-ray really excels, is in the High Definition audio. Here, there’s a DTS HD Master Audio in a 5.0 mix and a PCM stereo track. Both are a little harsh and over-dynamic and it’s hard to find the right volume level - too loud and it’s booming, too low and the singing is inaudible. There is a happy medium however, if you can find it, where the qualities of the performance can be heard. Overall, this is a good performance of La Fancuilla del West and the stage production is nice to look at, but it doesn’t really bring anything new out of the opera.