The first notes of the prelude to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut begin with strings and woodwinds whirling and dancing around in an almost frenzied but controlled pace. It was clear that the audience at the revival of Gilbert Deflo's charming 2004 Deutsche Oper Berlin production was in for a magical evening when the stage and the pit were in beautiful harmony and sympathy that many opera directors and conductors strive for but rarely achieve. Sir Simon Rattle led the orchestra in a performance of such transparency, subtlety and depth that I almost believed that I was listening to the Berlin Philharmonic. There were hardly any missed or bad notes; the musicians clearly relished making music with Sir Simon; their focus and joy were palpable.

<i>Manon Lescaut</i> © Bettina Stöß (2015)
Manon Lescaut
© Bettina Stöß (2015)

William Orlandi's stage and costume designs are whimsical and stylish, straight out of a picture book. The background colors are white and gray, the lines are angular and sharp. The courtyard outside the inn in Act 1 is a long room with low walls surrounding tables and chairs. In the second act, Manon’s Parisian boudoir is painted in stark white with a bed and a make-up table with mirrors the only pieces of furniture. The harbor scene in Act 3 has a suspended corridor above, from which Manon looks down on Des Grieux as they sing their emotional duet. Later a boat floats onto the stage to take the fallen women and an ecstatic Des Grieux with Manon to the ship for America. In the fourth and final act, the Louisiana desert where Manon dies is only indicated by a group of red stones in the middle of the white floor. Two rectangular white columns stand mid-stage to indicate a narrow opening in the landscape.

<i>Manon Lescaut</i> © Bettina Stöß (2015)
Manon Lescaut
© Bettina Stöß (2015)

In this minimalistic and monochromatic stage, Orlandi uses splashes of color for period costumes, in powder blue, light yellow and white for Des Grieux, orange pink and yellow for Manon. In the desert, both wear light gray. Aristocrats such as Manon’s patron Geronte wear a wig and a make-up in the style of the story's 18th-century setting. Performers are well directed with precise movements, often in step with the music, and the blocking is careful and intelligent. The overall impression is of the work of a brilliant and talented designer with sophistication, polish and a sense of humor. The production is a triumph; the fantasy-land stage design helps to accentuate the cruelty of the story.

<i>Manon Lescaut</i> © Bettina Stöß (2015)
Manon Lescaut
© Bettina Stöß (2015)

Under Sir Simon’s leadership, Puccini’s music was given a fresh, symphonic and dramatic reading. The music often told the story of the opera and propelled the action forward. The singers were all very competent and dedicated, but it was the orchestra that really took the center stage. In the title role, Maria José Siri had a bit of fast vibrato in her secure, if not very glamorous, soprano, which added depth to her characterization. She excelled in tender moments of quiet singing, as in her aria “In quelle trine morbide” in Act 2, but also rose to the challenge of her more dramatic aria “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” in Act 4 with a soaring legato and a brilliant top. Jorge de Léon, her Chevalier, sang with robust and virile tone, and his acting was sincere and heartfelt. If he was a little strained in his first act aria “Donna non vidi mai”, he was thrilling in his outburst of his emotion in Act 2 "Ah, Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensiero” and inconsolable in his grief in Act 4, quite an emotional journey from carefree young man to a grief-stricken lover. Thomas Lehman as Manon’s brother Lescaut and Stephen Bronk as Geronte both contributed fine singing and acting. Ya-Chung Huang as Edmondo, with his crystal clear tenor, set the stage at the beginning of an evening full of lithe music charged with emotion.

****1