Massanet, Jules


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.

QuichotteJules Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels 2010 | Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly, Silvia Tro Santafé, José van Dam, Werner Van Mechelen, Julie Mossay, Camille Merckx, Vincent Delhoume, Gijs Van der Linden, Bernard Villier | Naive

With piles of papers and documents piled up on the stage, Laurent Pelly’s production design for this 2010 performance of Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels looks like something from an art installation, but it serves the opera well and in the process provides a suitable platform for José van Dam’s final bow from the opera stage. Taking a dream-like overview of the subject, Act I shows what looks like a the Don’s drawing room, where the aging knight is resting sitting in an armchair, a man past his prime, dreaming of better times, of his love for the beautiful Dulcinea that once inspired him to write verses of praise in her name - all of which are piled up in a small mountain below her balcony - and the idealism that drove him to what he believes to be chivalrous and intrepid acts of valour.

The dream world of the knight’s idealism in the subsequent four acts is similarly filled with sierras and landscapes made of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, reflecting the recreation of Don Quichotte’s exploits on paper and the lack of substantiality that these dreams are based on, the valiant knight forgetting that he is now just a foolish old man whose youth has faded. After a 50 year career, José van Dam’s voice may also lost some of its youthful vigour and strength, but the passion and sincerity is still there, and in that respect it’s a perfect fit for the role of Don Quixote that makes his performance of the role all the more poignant.

I’ve never really been able to find a distinctive stamp to Massenet’s varied opera styles, finding little that has made an impression beyond his most famous creations of Werther, Manon and Thaïs, but I’m always interested to find what can be brought out of the other works, particularly when they are fully staged. Don Quichotte seems like a rather slight work in this respect, but the composer nonetheless seems to find the right tone throughout for this ‘comédie-héroique en cinq actes’. A five-act opera, it is however surprisingly sprightly, each of the short brief scenes - the entire work coming in at under two hours - finding the right balance of adventure and nobility, foolishness and dignity, with little Spanish-inflected arrangements but also a certain French character. I don’t know if it gets to the essence of Cervantes (Massenet worked on a French adaptation “Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure” by Jacques Le Lorrain), but it seems to strike the right tone throughout that fits the character of the work.

Laurent Pelly’s production likewise seems an exceptionally good fit. The astonishing set designed by Barbara de Limburg is mostly static, but there are subtle changes over the course of the opera that reflect the deterioration of Don Quichotte’s mind, and a few neat touches - the battle with the windmills is well achieved - that bring the work to life at the right moments. The casting is also perfectly appropriate for this modest little work that is nonetheless not short on charm or beauty. Van Dam is Don Quixote incarnate, carrying himself as the “errant knight who rights wrongs” with exactly the right kind of proud nobility amid the confusion of old-age. He might not hold the low notes with the same rock-solid sureness, but it’s a lovely and thoughtful performance, sung very well indeed. Silvia Tro Santafé is a lovely Dulcinea, with a light, rich, sparkling tone to her French, even if the vibrato applied makes her at times sound like an old-time French cabaret singer, evoking Edith Piaf in places. Werner van Mechelen provides solid support as Sancho. Combined they form the kind of strong varied and sensitive trio of principals that the work needs, but the quartet roles and the chorus are also wonderful here.

Released on DVD only, the presentation of the performance is fine, if the image quality and sharpness is not quite as impressive as it might have been in HD. The audio likewise is disappointingly lower-spec, Dolby Digital 2.0 only, but the sound is clear and the tone is warm. The orchestration, conducted beautifully by Marc Minkowski, sounds wonderful, and the singing is mostly strong and clear in the mix. There are a few slight dips in the sound, usually only audible around the audience applause, but occasionally on the stage also, as if the microphones levels are being adjusted, but it’s a relative minor issue. The DVD includes an excellent hour-long feature that goes behind the scenes on the production in some detail.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.