Thursday, 6 August 2015

Puccini - Manon Lescaut (Munich, 2015 - Webcast)

Giacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Alain Altinoglu, Hans Neuenfels, Kristine Opolais, Markus Eiche, Jonas Kaufmann, Roland Bracht, Dean Power, Christian Rieger, Ulrich Reß, Christoph Stephinger, Petr Nekoranec, Evgenij Kachurovsky, Okka von der Damerau


While it's always interesting to see what the Bayerische Staatsoper come up with in their efforts to reinvent and revitalise familiar opera works, sometimes I think they try too hard and end up missing the point. In the case of Hans Neuenfels' productions, the approach is undoubtedly well-considered, purposeful and usually has something meaningful to say about the works themselves, but it rarely does the work any favours. In the case of Manon Lescaut, the attempt to explore and comment on the work itself seems to miss the main point that opera is to provide dramatic as well as musical coherence. And entertain. Much of those vital aspects were missing from the new Munich production.

Then again, although it is rapidly finding its way in recent years into the Puccini canon and has undoubted merits, Manon Lescaut is far from perfect and has evident musical, dramatic and structural flaws. It's infuriatingly lacking in any kind of through narrative and, set as a number of almost standalone acts that make it more Scenes from Manon Lescaut, there are huge gaps in the narrative that lead to inconsistent characterisation. It's structured much like La Bohème then, but Puccini would make up for it there with the most extraordinary arias, melody and melodrama. In Manon Lescaut, you rely on either knowledge of the Abbé Prévost original or - more likely - you can fill in some gaps from familiarity with Massenet's more satisfying version of the work, Manon.

Most obviously and fatally, there's a whole act missing between Act I and Act II of Puccini's version. Des Grieux and Manon run away to Paris after their meeting at the end of Act I. Act II then starts with Manon established as the mistress of Geronte. There's no scene to show the brief period of happy poverty of her time in Paris with Des Grieux that becomes so important a bond that it brings them back together and persuades Manon to (almost) give up her life of luxury in Geronte's apartment. It's alluded to but never shown, making what follows - not least the bizarre out of nowhere Act IV scene of them dying in the Utah desert - much harder to relate to or piece together.

Considering that there is nonetheless some terrific music and situations even within this mangled adaptation of the story, most productions and directors tend try to make the most of it and strive to give it a greater coherence. Not Neuenfels. His production seems to follow my own personal dissatisfaction of the work by following it to the letter and letting it stand in its own imperfect state. The bare minimalist stage for Act I, for example - lit only by a box-like neon frame - shows the characters and the setting as something unsubstantial and vacant. Act II gains nothing much more than trinkets in a room with no walls and a floating ceiling, with chorus figures and secondary characters dressed and behaving absurdly. By the time we get to Act IV in the desert, the stage is again completely bare.

According to Hans Neuenfels, his production is an attempt to reach an "emotional truth", but it seems more of a commentary on the weaknesses of the work itself than an attempt to mitigate against its failings. It also seems to either ignore the deeper "emotional truth" in Puccini's musical compositions, or else - and it's a valid response - doesn't find them to hold any real emotional content. I don't think the latter is the case, personally, and I don't really think that's what Neuenefels believes either. It's true that the orchestration and the Romantic sweep can be hugely overwrought, never really making the connection with the characters that you will find (arguably) in later Puccini works, but Neuenfels isn't consistent in his approach where the set design seems to be at odds with the musical and singing performances.

Alain Altinoglu recognises and gets across all the rich colour of Puccini's score, hammering out all its overblown dynamic and force, but it lacks subtlety. That's obviously as much as a failing with Puccini on this particular work, and you could argue that Neuenfels' minimal staging is an attempt to under-compensate, but it does leads to an uncomfortable disjoint between the music and the characterisation. The singing unfortunately isn't able to do a great deal to strike a balance between them. Kristine Opolais is a fine singer, but she doesn't have the size of voice that is required to fill out Manon's character across the range. She can't compete with Jonas Kaufmann in terms of volume evidently, but it's more than that. Unsupported on a bare stage, without Antonio Pappano's more sympathetic conducting to give her more room, those weaknesses are more evident here than in the recent Royal Opera House production opposite Kaufmann.

Jonas Kaufmann is of course still incredible, his performance just about flawless, and he's still clearly just about the most gifted tenor in the world today. He has the power to sing Des Grieux like every note of Puccini comes from a deep, meaningful place, even when it doesn't, which is the case in this insubstantial production. There's a sense that Neuenfels recognises that a credible Des Grieux might be the key to making Manon Lescaut work. Passages from his point of view are quoted at length between scenes and acts, but it's not really enough to make up for the lack of coherence in the approach elsewhere. This is exemplified beyond any question by the lack of emotional connection that results in the intense melodrama of Act IV's death scene in the desert. If that doesn't hit you hard, something has gone badly wrong somewhere, and once again Manon Lescaut fails to convince.