It is more than 10 years since Robert Carsen’s problematic production of Manon Lescaut replaced Otto Schenk’s traditional staging at the Wiener Staatsoper. It has not worn well. Carsen seems more interested in paparazzi, pimps and Lacroix-clad call-girls than Manon’s psychological degeneracy and karmic demise.

Instead of a humble village square in Act I, Anthony McDonald’s stage design looked more like a stylised Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Enormous haute couture boutique windows display a succession of sartorial extravaganzas. Bored fashionistas parade up and down with ostentatious shopping bags. This is certainly not a banlieue for poor students and itinerant peasants. The small country inn could pass for the Bulgari hotel in Milano.

Edmondo is an aggressive paparazzo who spends most of the opera snapping endless images. Despite singing “Non c’è più vino?” Lescaut frère is rarely without a can of Becks in his hand. Geronte is a heinous mafioso/prostitution ring capo surrounded by Secret Service-like henchmen in dark suits and even darker sunglasses. The ‘carrozza’ with which Geronte plans to abduct Manon is a silver Lexus 430 – conveniently a major sponsor of the Staatsoper. At least it had Paris plates.

Geronte’s sumptuous residence is a vast penthouse apartment with ceiling-high windows overlooking a high-rise vista more like Fifth Avenue than the Avenue Foch. To avoid the incongruity of Manon learning madrigals and minuets in the disco decade, Carsen uses the dancing instruction scene as a Madonna-inspired music-video take. There is no dancing master – the video clip is directed by Edmondo simultaneously snapping stills. It is not “una squadra di soldati” who come to arrest Manon but Geronte’s hitmen. The act ends with Manon being brutally raped by her ‘patron’.

In Act III there is no State deportation of prostitutes but Geronte sending off a selection of his putains to be sex-slaves in America. There is also no compassionate ship’s captain sympathetic to Des Grieux’s desperate entreaties. It is Geronte himself who implausibly exercises such magnanimity. The original Act IV Louisiana desert setting has always been problematic if not topographically incorrect. Carsen’s solution is to return to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, but without the displaced Bulgari hotel. Des Grieux laments there is “non un filo d’acqua” to be seen, but there is surely a café just around the corner.

Musically things were more satisfactory although the camera-toting Edmondo of Carlos Asuna was clearly under-voiced. As Manon’s freeloading brother, American baritone David Pershall displayed an engaging stage presence and an agreeable timbre although not always with adequate projection. His short Act II “una casetta angusta” was memorable for some fine top F sharps and measured phrasing.

Wolfgang Bankl’s sinister Geronte was the only principal not making a role debut, having sung in the première in 2005. This characterisation is definitely not a precursor to the amiably deluded Alcindoro but something profoundly evil. The voice may no longer be in first bloom, but the interpretation was disturbingly persuasive.

As Des Grieux, Marcello Giordani had an exceptional top register reminiscent of Giuseppe di Stefano in colour but regrettably an unconvincing stage presence, especially portraying an ardent young student. There were some ringing B flats in “Donna non vidi mai” and sensitive phrasing of the “Manon Lescaut mi chiamo” theme. The duets with Manon were vocally exciting if dramatically less credible.

The principal interest of the evening was Anna Netrebko making her house debut in the title role. There is no doubt about the Russian diva’s vocal suitability for the part. She was also visually apposite, especially in the glamourous bejewelled Act II. There was commendable attention to the text although “In quelle trine morbide” seemed slightly mannered despite some fine legato singing at the key change on “O mia dimora umile”. The ‘minueto’ scena showed sensitive rubato, delicate fioratura and precise trilling. “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” was sung with real anguish and a killer B flat on “non voglio morir”. The top C fermata on “amor” at the end of the concertante section in Act II seemed to go on forever and sent the full-house Netrebko-niks wild. There was nothing really negative about this performance and yet there was also something indefinably missing. 

Marco Armiliato led the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper with boundless energy, despite a rather abrupt stop/start baton technique. There was however a surprising lack of orchestral translucency. On the other hand, woodwinds were especially impressive such as the virtuoso solo flute opening to Act II. The cello and solo violin introduction to the Intermezzo was predictably mellifluous and the strings’ recapitulation of the “Nell’occhio tuo profondo” motif  both poignant and powerful.

This intensely lyrical early Puccini oeuvre deserves to be heard more often in Europe’s premier opera house but ideally with less directional deviation.