In an interview in the programme, Staatsoper Berlin’s intendant and director of this production, Jürgen Flimm, is asked why he and his contemporary Hans Neuenfels should both have turned to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut having reached “a certain age”. He obviously doesn’t answer on Neuenfels’ part, but his own response is interesting – if a little vague.
He describes the work as a Sterntalergeschichte (a reference to the Brothers Grimm), and refers to “trashy literature” (Kolportage) and its musical form, operetta, as well as to the work’s relevance today. He draws parallels with La traviata and suggests that the final act – with its Beckett-like hopelessness – is the key to the whole piece.
And it’s probably the final scene that works most impressively in his production – a collaboration with St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, where it was unveiled in 2014. There the specificity of what’s come before dissolves to focus unflinchingly on the desperation and abandonment of Manon and Des Grieux. The final moment of her death is staged with a powerful bleakness. The desert is an abstract space, with run-down relics of previous acts. It’s dramatically effective, if not necessarily itself offering a key to the rest of the production.
In response to a question about Werktreue Flimm is dismissive, and explains that all he’s done is to lay a new narrative layer over the existing story, which he tells pretty much straight. That narrative layer involves updating the action to the early film era. Act I is a casting at ‘Sunset Motion Pictures’, with Manon an auditioning starlet. Geronte is a film producer, Des Grieux one among a whole array of variously costumed extras. The events of Acts III and IV seem to be dictated, judging from the projection that accompanies the Intermezzo, by economic collapse, with Act III’s deportation being more a matter of Manon, Des Grieux and his fellow extras being thrown jobless out into the street.
There’s a little scope for confusion, admittedly, and Flimm’s one major change – to have Manon return to Geronte already at the close of Act I – certainly doesn’t help one sympathise with an already unsympathetic protagonist... or to believe in Des Grieux’s love for her. To have Roman Trekel’s dry-voiced Lescaut lurking around in the shadows filming his sister seems to labour the voyeuristic point a little, too.
But the action is allowed to be light on its feet, with George Tsypin’s sets, impermanent and easily adjustable, adding to the effect. Robert Pflanz’s videos help, along with Riccardo Massi’s natty moustache as Des Grieux, to put one in mind of Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winning The Artist.
The casting also plays a part, lighter than has been heard in several of the opera’s recent appearances. Here we have a Manon and a Des Grieux who one could imagine as Violetta and Alfredo – although Massi’s CV shows that he’s venturing increasingly into heavier repertoire. Anna Nechaeva’s soprano is beautifully regulated, its dark chocolate colour and shimmering power coming through particularly in the middle to upper range. Massi’s sunny, light-coloured tenor and instinctive legato provide a real pleasure. It’s a voice whose carefree character seems unsuited to chest-beating veristic tragedy, but he’s an engaging and moving performer. Together they made a very human couple, and their duets – particularly in Act I – were highlights.
Franz Hawlata’s Geronte is suitably cynical, if inevitably a little reminiscent of his Baron Ochs, and Natalia Skrycka made a strong impression as the singer in the Madrigal. In the pit, Mikhail Tatarnikov, the Mikhailovsky’s music director, conducted an intelligent and well-paced account of the score, more cool and controlled, perhaps, than ardent and impassioned, but well matched to the scale of both cast and production.
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