Puccini is one of opera’s best loved composers. With so many popular titles to his name, it is somewhat surprising how infrequently his first great success, Manon Lescaut, is performed today. What makes this even more unusual is the opera’s universal appeal. It contains some wonderful music, with all the deep emotion of the mature Puccini combined with a youthful energy and simplicity, and its verismo plot is easily digestible, even for opera virgins. Perhaps Massenet’s opera Manon, based on the same novel by Abbé Prévost, has somewhat tempered the operas success over the years, but hopefully the Semperoper’s new production will give this opera a new lease of life, and encourage more opera houses to put on this formidable work.

The opera tells of a young student, des Grieux, who falls in love with the beautiful Manon. The two run away together to Paris, but Manon soon gets bored with being poor and defects to the household of the rich Geronte de Ravoir. But Manon is also bored of her wealthy but loveless lifestyle, and returns to des Grieux, resulting in her arrest and deportation to Louisiana, where she eventually dies of exhaustion in the desert The Norwegian director Stefan Herheim gave the opera a significant rethink, with much originality and verve, but also without imposing his own external ideas onto the work. Rather, he drew ideas from the piece and in the process gave it a new lease of life. In Herheim’s production the action takes place in Paris, in the workshop of Gustave Eiffel as the Statue of Liberty was being built. Set designer Heike Scheele takes Herheim’s ideas and transforms them into dynamic and rugged sets, which reflect the industrial soul of late 19th-century Paris, and the realistic style of Puccini’s music and Prévost’s book. Though enjoyable, Scheele’s sets and Herheim’s direction are perhaps a little too dense for some, with the stage constantly saturated with chorus, props, set and soloists, not to mention the miming string players which seem to plague almost every Semperoper production.

A somewhat unusual addition was to have Puccini himself appear on stage, played by a silent actor who never left the stage and even at times interacted with the characters. At times he seemed to get in the way of the drama, and temper the emotions of the work, rather than heightening them. But at others he provided an interesting view into the creative process of the composer. Whether this view is truly representative of Puccini’s working methods is doubtful, but it was enlightening to watch the composer reading Prévost’s book and finding inspiration in, suffering with his characters and living their emotions.

At the musical helm, Christian Thielemann, though best known for his German repertoire, lead both orchestra and cast stylishly through this emotional music. The balance between the pit and the stage, so often a problem at the Semperoper, was excellently judged, melding the two areas of the house together in a way seldom heard. The strings played with a rich sheen, but it was the woodwind who really outdid themselves, with some of the most wonderful playing I’ve heard in the opera house. Particular mention must go to the principal flute, whose playing in the demanding solo in Act II was truly outstanding, though I was sadly unable to see which of the Sächsische Staatskapelle’s three excellent principal flautists was playing.

As Edmondo, Semperoper ensemble member Giorgio Berrugi, who opened the opera with his rich tenor voice, is an impressive figure on the stage, and heads the chorus both musically and emotionally throughout the opera. The chorus itself is particularly impressive in this production, superbly prepared by chorusmaster Pablo Assante. The celebrated soprano Norma Fantini was an impressive Manon, with a beautifully rounded voice, which soared above the orchestra in the fortes, while maintaining the required intimacy when called for. Dramatically she was every bit Puccini and Prévost’s tragic heroine, whose fickle, youthful nature brings about her downfall. Sadly her talents were poorly balanced by the young tenor Thiago Arancam. His voice was thin and undistinguished, and while he hit all the notes there was very little to commend in his performance, and when the time came for the curtain call the audience made their discontent heard and unanimously booed him off the stage, an extremely rare event here in Dresden.

The audience met the performance with decidedly mixed reactions. Half the audience gave a standing ovation to the director and designers, but many greeted them with boos and hissing. I found this new production enlightening and enjoyable throughout, but perhaps it’s not for everyone. Though with such a weak link in the cast, it’s harder to be forgiving if the production is not to your taste.