Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper
Just how far goes the right of a stage director to interpret the work of a composer, a librettist? Does he really have that right? Why do today’s audiences have to take into account the points of view of those alleged specialists instead of seeing and hearing the works as their authors created them, and forming their own points of view? Why, then, does the public of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, in a production of this season, taken up for the Opera festival at the Munich Staatsoper, have to read the very personal remarks of Hans Neuenfels on a screen, that even at one point replace the librettist’s words? Why do we have to see the choir attired in grotesque costumes, a kind of grey coveralls with enormous hips and hindquarters, calling to mind those prehistoric Venus statues? And why, in the name of the Abbé Prévost, do those characters have to execute dance movements in direct opposition to what the music tells us? The effect is of contradiction, caricature, and distorsion of Puccini’s ideas. Thus, during the first scene, we can, through the music, see the scene as Puccini must have pictured it and the contrast between sight and sound is painful for the brain. Thus, the dancing master in Act2 is sufficiently depicted as a ridiculous character by the music and it is superfluous to make him look like an ape to get the message home. By means of a very simple set (Stefan Mayer) and simple costumes (Andrea Schmidt-Futterer), which are at least elegant and pleasant to look at, the stage director wants to situate his story out of time, regardless of the fact that Manon’s tragedy is possible only in its historic context. The way it is presented here, one has to know the work to understand the story. Everything is compressed, symbolized, except Manon’s bedroom in Act 2 and the coach in Act 1, which is torn by human horses, crowned by circus-horse feathers. No hostel, no prison, no embarkation quay... How do we explain ourselves arrest, deportation, and how and why? Everything is hazy between not enough and superfluous. Fortunately, musically this representation is pure delight, effortlessly perfect. Alain Altinoglu conducts the excellent orchestra of the Staatsoper Munich with a sense of detail, and incredible drive, all of sensitivity and restrained force. All of Puccini is here: dramatic force, intimate detail, pain, and lust and humour...The cast is excellent as well: baritone Markus Eiche, black velvet voice, plays Lescaut with the impulsive energy of the character; the bass Roland Bracht is a Geronte between dignity and perfidy. The remarkable tenor Ulrich Reß is the dancing master, and another tenor, Dean Power, remarkable also as Edmondo. Kristine Opolais is Manon. Her voice, ample, generous, round and sweet, blends perfectly with that of her Des Grieux, Jonas Kaufmann. He is in perfect form these days. The dark sound of his voice, that used to sound a bit artificial at times, comes easy now and effortless. Both of them totally inhabit their characters, abandoning themselves to the music, shining and radiating beauty into the very heart of pain. The final scene is played out on a naked stage, and it’s of rare and raw intensity. There is only the two of them, wearing identical dark grey suits: they are finally together, alone against the world. The harmony is perfect with the orchestra, the complaints resound, love unfolds one last times in ardent pain, and we are breathless, as moved and trembling as those two, up there. Thunderous applause, bravos, trampling, unending curtain calls: Munich gives thanks to her artists for their generosity. In spite of the staging, a memorable evening at the opera.