The backbone of the Salzburg Festival is its fully staged operatic productions, but concert presentations of operas are often used for rare repertoire or as star vehicles. Later to come this summer will be a single performance of Massenet’s Thaïs with Sonya Yoncheva and Plácido Domingo, but first came Puccini’s Manon Lescaut featuring Anna Netrebko and her husband Yusif Eyvazov, granted a generous run of three performances. After a week enjoying the wonderful Regietheater excesses of Bayreuth, I was a bit apprehensive about seeing a mere concert of an opera, one of the works of Puccini that responds best to directorial re-interpretation. But with the singers fully acting their roles, no music stands in sight outside the orchestra and chorus (even conductor Marco Armiliato performed the tough task of directing the whole opera from memory), this was as dramatically involving an account as any I have seen.

Yusif Eyvazov and Anna Netrebko © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli
Yusif Eyvazov and Anna Netrebko
© Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Only Eyvazov’s Des Grieux wore anything resembling a theatrical costume – conceivably period dress; the other men were in modern evening dress and Netrebko sufficed with a voluminous black dress that required lifting to move around in, making her stage movements somewhat restricted as a result. The only other problem of this concert presentation was that with the Grosses Festspielhaus’ stage being so wide, and the singers so forward (the stage extended over the pit), the action was effectively projected to different swathes of the audience in turn, meaning some interactions sounded and felt more distant than others.

Netrebko completely inhabited the role of Manon. Her Italian may have been a little idiosyncratic, but her projection of the meaning of the text was never compromised, and her famed vocal control and sumptuous tone were much in evidence. Eyvazov was clarion in the force and focus of his Italianate tenor and revealed himself capable of subtlety, too – not always a given in this field. The two singers met during Netrebko’s first stage performances of her role in Rome in 2014, and they were married last December. Something of their real-life affection was reflected in their portrayal of this passionate love match, which had veracity and warmth to it.

Yusif Eyvazov and Anna Netrebko © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli
Yusif Eyvazov and Anna Netrebko
© Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

The rest of the cast was less high-profile, perhaps, but no less accomplished. Mexican baritone Armando Piña made Manon’s brother Lescaut the mercenary cad that he should be, a suavely sung villain of the piece whose protectiveness comes too late. Carlos Chausson had authority as Geronte (why is he only known by his first name, but Des Grieux not? Not even Manon calls her lover Renato, despite their obvious intimacy). And the young French tenor Benjamin Bernheim was a particularly mellifluous Edmondo, the student poet who initially eggs on Des Grieux. There was also a plushly sung cameo from Szilvia Vörös as the head of the small madrigal troupe that entertains Manon in Act II (Puccini must have felt the lack of female voices in the opera, beyond the title role, and provided this brief recompense – he does the same, perhaps for the same reason, with the offstage cantata in Tosca).

The Munich Radio Orchestra presumably has little experience of playing opera on a regular basis, but accompanied with style and never drowned out the singers. This early score of Puccini’s already shows the composer’s mastery of orchestral sonority, from the conspiratorial business of Act I to the emotional power of the Act III Intermezzo and the plangent string writing in Act IV. The musicians rose to every challenge under Armiliato’s commanding baton, and there were some especially moving solos from the strings in the Crisantemi moments towards the end. Finally, there was robust and authoritative singing from the members of the Vienna State Opera Chorus Concert Association.

****1