Last Monday marked the long-awaited return of Eva-Maria Westbroek to the stage of Dutch National Opera. The internationally-acclaimed soprano had not sung in Amsterdam, a few concert appearances excepted, since appearing as Minnie in a 2009 production of La fanciulla del West. Expectations were running high, especially because, by her own account, she is particularly fond of the role of Manon Lescaut. Those expectations were only partly met, not so much because of her performance itself, but more because of Andrea Breth’s distant and chilly direction, which left me dry-eyed.

Ms Breth’s staging starts with an interesting idea. Possibly to overcome the episodic character of Puccini’s first great success (the four acts are four disconnected moments in the life of the heroine), she stages the whole opera as flashbacks to Manon’s life, while she is dying, hallucinating, in the Louisiana desert. When the curtain rises on Act I, we see Manon and Des Grieux laying on the sand dunes on one side of the stage. In her delirium, the merry and youthful crowd in Amiens’ main square becomes a static mass of dark shadows that visually contradicts Puccini’s exuberant music.

It is an aesthetically handsome production with its bright-coloured costumes (by Eva Dessecker and the late Moidele Bickel) moving against the sets of white panels and sand dunes (with a few waiting room chairs thrown in for good measure) by Martin Zehetgruber, but it often feels irritably sterile. The characters in this nightmarish vision are left caricatured to the extreme. Manon’s brother, Lescaut, benefits from Thomas Oliemans’ agile stage presence but is simplistically pictured as a low-life gambling drunkard. Alain Coulombe’s Geronte de Revoir, Manon’s elderly protector, is the villain of a grotesque farce. Even Manon herself isn’t rescued from the paper-thin characterisation, portrayed as she is as a young gold-digger whose eyes only ignite at the sight of diamonds.

At this point, Ms Westbroek’s consummate talent as an actress comes to the rescue to evoke the greedy teenager bored of her life with Geronte, as her naturally opulent and mature voice does not easily scale down to a believable 18-year old. It is in the dramatic Act IV that she is at her best, her sumptuous soprano riding effortlessly the carpet of boisterous sound coming from Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted with much energy by Alexander Joel. Her aria “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” is a gripping moment, the only real emotional highlight of the evening.

I imagine Stefano La Colla’s Chevalier des Grieux must have found meeting his Manon for the first time crouching in the desert sand somewhat underwhelming. There seemed to be little chemistry between the two, hopefully something which will improve later in the run. The stage direction does not help him, having left his character standing around awkwardly without much to do for most of the performance. This is a terrible shame, because Mr La Colla possesses the most exciting spinto tenor I have heard in a long time. The voice is impressively large, the breath apparently limitless, the timbre utterly seductive and unmistakably Italianate... like a beam of sunshine in this icy Louisiana desert.