A pretty 16-year-old girl arrives in a big city. She is enraptured by its elegance and captivated by a stranger’s words of lifelong love. But she soon sacrifices his idolisation for wealth and fame. Yet she is unable to shake her need for compulsive adoration from her former lover. She seeks him out, he is unable to resist and, ultimately, he becomes destitute while she falls to ruin and her death. “Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut," she says with her last breath.

Insik Choi (De Brétigny) and Zuzana Marková (Manon Lescaut) © Bernd Uhlig
Insik Choi (De Brétigny) and Zuzana Marková (Manon Lescaut)
© Bernd Uhlig

The story of Manon Lescaut is one that could make headlines today. Its themes resonate centuries after Abbé Prévost first penned them in his 1731 novel. Oper Köln’s performance of Manon, Jules Massenet’s 1884 opéra comique adaptation, did more than just entertainingly present Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille’s psychological libretto and the composer’s sweeping music. Johannes Erath's conceptually bold production, which fell just shy of brilliance, placed the opera squarely in the middle of contemporary debates about power and (sexual) predation, objectification and addiction. Köln’s Manon showed just how relevant and thought-provoking opera can be.

Erath’s concept set Manon largely in mid-20th century France, suggested in part through Gesine Völlm’s evocative costumes. Herbert Barz-Murauer's set, a long horizontal slash, conveyed a sense of voyeurism. During the prelude, two giant female eyes gazed out at the audience as if from between the gap in a Venetian blind, raising the question: who is watching whom? Do we play a role in Manon’s fate? And what is going on behind those eyes?

Erath chose to include a dancer Manon (Franziska Gassman), who hinted at Manon’s unspoken thoughts. Although Athol Farmer’s choreography was elegant, I would have liked to see more made of the dancer as she was used in des Grieux’s apartment (Act 2). With simple but expressive physical gestures, she gave the audience a window into how Manon –specifically the young, naive Manon – felt about her choice to betray her lover.

Atalla Ayan (Chevalier Des Grieux) and Zuzana Marková (Manon Lescaut) © Bernd Uhlig
Atalla Ayan (Chevalier Des Grieux) and Zuzana Marková (Manon Lescaut)
© Bernd Uhlig

Certain elements from Act 3 onwards distracted more than enhanced (such as the black-clad dancers with disco balls). However, Nicol Hungsberg’s utilitarian lighting and Bibi Abel’s video projections fit the concept well, and Erath’s main themes, particularly sexual power, remained clear and consistent. The crowd of men who snapped coolly and menacingly as Manon sang “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle”; the female churchgoers who lusted over the preaching des Grieux; the women who sang of enjoying a promenade on Cours-La-Reine while giving men in suits oral sex: these scenes connected onstage action to current debates through justified decisions that neither abandoned the plot for the sake of provocation nor contradicted the music’s emotional message.

Erath’s decision to insert Serge Gainsbourg’s 1968 song Manon into the opera at the point of Manon’s downfall may have affronted purists, but the half-spoken, love-hate words with Zuzana Marková’s (in her role and house debut) stiff-jawed self-ravagement was gripping. Marková was superb as the celebrity Manon but struggled early on to convey Manon’s youthful enthusiasm, coming off as pre-emptively self-possessed in her seductive power. She showed off an agile and bright upper register in “Je marche sur tous les Chemins” and “Obéissons” and brought appropriate dramatic weight to her entreating aria “N'est-ce plus ma main ?”. However, her lower register lacked the vocal heft needed for Manon’s early arias.

Zuzana Marková (Manon Lescaut) and Atalla Ayan (Chevalier Des Grieux) © Bernd Uhlig
Zuzana Marková (Manon Lescaut) and Atalla Ayan (Chevalier Des Grieux)
© Bernd Uhlig

Conductor Claude Schnitzler could have held back the orchestra in the music’s more layered moments, but he conducted with great rhythmic attention, keeping soloists, a strong chorus and the orchestra together in a few slippery instances, and drawing a vibrant and lush performance from the Gürzenich Orchestra.

Unfortunately, the role of Chevalier des Grieux didn't flatter the strengths of Atalla Ayan’s voice. His spinning squillo flickered in and out, and he struggled to fluidly deliver the role’s large upward leaps in its most dramatic moments, such as in Saint-Sulpice. Dramatically, he shone in Act 2’s blissful intimacy, but he grew leaden as des Grieux’s torment increased.

The performance standout was Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger as Lescaut. With beguiling physical ease, he inhabited every inch of Manon's brother, from the tips of his black boots to the slick curl of his hair, and he sang with convincing motivation. Insik Choi delivered an insidious de Brétigny while Nikolay Didenko played an authoritative Comte des Grieux who felt no fatherly love. The trio of ladies (Menna Cazel, Marta Wryk and Dara Savinova) were vocally tight while John Heuzenroeder and Julian Schulzki delivered amusing portrayals of Guillot de Morfontaine and the Innkeeper et al respectively.

Despite the fact that the lead singers’ voices did not quite fit the roles’ requirements, Köln’s Manon is resoundingly successful, above all on the merits of its adventurous, yet well-grounded creative decisions.