Furlanetto, Giovanni


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.

TrovatoreGiuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012

There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.

It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.

In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.

If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).

Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.

BarbiereGioachino Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2011 | Andrea Battistoni, Stefano Vizioli, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Luca Salsi, Dmitry Korchak, Giovanni Furlanetto, Bruno Praticò, Gabriele Bolletta, Noris Borgogelli, Natalia Roman | Arthaus Musik

You might detect the influence of Mozart in some of Rossini’s earlier works. It’s there in an opera seria like Semiramide, but it’s perhaps most evident in the buffo style of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, ‘The Barber of Seville’. Most obviously, it shares several of the same characters who appear in The Marriage of Figaro, both works originally written by Beaumarchais, but the similarity is evident in the use of recitative, the ensemble finales, the type of humour in the farcical situations (the librettist, Sterbini, like Da Ponte for Mozart, cutting back on some of the more pointed barbs of Beaumarchais’s revolutionary satire), but principally, it’s the manner in which Rossini approaches the material with a similar sense of dazzling inventiveness and virtuoso touches that would come to define bel canto.

It was Paisiello however, more than Mozart or Beaumarchais, who would have been foremost in the mind of the composer, since Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia had already proven to be a success and was still hugely popular at the time that Rossini decided to tackle the subject, believing that he could do much more with the work than the old-fashioned, outdated, conservative style of the original version. Sterbini evidently thought so too and rather than go back to the original Beaumarchais source, set about reworking Paisiello’s opera, delivering it piecemeal for Rossini to complete in his famously prolific fashion. When asked if Rossini had indeed written the whole of The Barber of Seville in 13 days, Donizetti is reported to have replied, “It is very possible, he is so lazy”.

Barbiere

There reason I think it’s worth mentioning some of the background around the composition of the opera (which caused some fuss on its premiere in Rome in 1816, partly due to favouritism for Paisiello’s work and partly due to some attempts by supporters of Paisiello to actually sabotage its reception), is that this spirit of inventiveness, irreverence and simply just dashing it off in an off-handedly brilliant fashion is crucial to the tone of the work. It’s the same spirit that fires the youthful enthusiasm of Figaro, of Rosina and even of Almaviva and sets them in opposition to the old guard of Doctor Bartolo and Don Basilio. Even if you are unaware of its background, you should really get a sense of this from any production of the work itself, which is why ultimately it’s a little disappointing that this production recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2011 – otherwise competently produced and very well performed –couldn’t be a bit more lively.

On the positive side, while the stage setting itself initially isn’t much to look at, it’s actually quite inventive, with some appropriately imaginative touches to allow the work to flow through each of the two acts. So while in Act I, Doctor Bartolo’s house looks like a cardboard cut-out, with there being little sense of realism in the location of it actually being in street, much less a street in Seville, there is at least a balcony for Rosina, and some attempt at period costume, and really that’s all that is necessary for the opening scene. The cleverness of the set is revealed in the subsequent scenes when it opens up to reveal the interior of the house – again, quite simply – but through a few smart devices including a mountain of books, and through the colouration and lighting, it captures that sense of improvised brilliance, as well as being functional for the vital flow of the work and its humorous situations.

Barbiere

While the set is well-equipped to handle the flow and spirit of the work, the stage direction of the performers and the situations is however rather lacking in fire, personality and, sadly, in any real sense of humour. It all feels rather flat. The orchestra of Parma are fine under the young 23 year old conductor Andrea Battistoni, giving a vigorous account of the overture (the overture to this work borrowed from another opera, Aureliano, when the original was lost soon after its first production), and the performance of the score throughout is excellent, but after a while it also seems to just drag along with the lifeless stage direction. It’s no fault either of the singers, who are mostly wonderful. Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Rosina in particular is superb, with a sparkling vitality in voice and character, but Luca Salsi’s Figaro and Bruno Praticò’s Bartolo also rise to the challenging and invigorating cavatinas and cabalettas of the work. Dmitry Korchak, while he has a pleasant musical tone of voice (as noted in my review of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra) unfortunately doesn’t have sufficient force, range or personality to carry off Count Almaviva.

All in all however, this is a reasonably good production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It looks good, it’s well-sung and well-performed, only lacking a spark of imagination in the direction, pacing and humour that really ought to be there to set this dazzling and entertaining work off. Image quality on the Blu-ray release from Arthaus is excellent, the image beautifully clear even in darkened areas of the stage, and there are strong HD sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Other than Trailers for other releases, there are no extra features on the disc. The Blu-ray is BD50, 16:9, 1080i full HD. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.