Fri 22 Feb 2013
Giacomo 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.