The opera world was abuzz when Anna Netrebko quit Manon Lescaut two weeks before the première due to “artistic differences” with director Hans Neuenfels. What could prompt such a last-minute exit? Would this be a particularly controversial production? The answer, in fact, is “no”. It’s certainly a modern and slightly bizarre staging, but it’s also coherent and musically sensitive. Throw in a starry cast of talented actor-singers, and the Bayerische Staatsoper has scored a definitive hit.

Kristīne Opolais (Manon Lescaut) © Wilfried Hösl
Kristīne Opolais (Manon Lescaut)
© Wilfried Hösl

Neuenfels puts the acting and characters first: even his stranger decisions don’t distract from his telling a compelling story of faithlessness and doomed love. He also excels at directing singers to move with or in response to the music – a good way to make a staging better fit the score, regardless of its visual style. One of his happiest innovations is the use of projected text between acts to give us insight into Manon’s and Des Grieux’s thoughts. These first-person summaries of events and feelings help solve one of the opera’s biggest dramatic problems: many months supposedly pass between each act, and those months are filled with events that are important to the lovers’ relationship but that we do not see.

The costuming and mannerisms of the chorus are the biggest indication that this isn’t a typical modern-dress opera production. The principal characters infallibly wear black, so as red-haired oompa-loompas in silver spacesuits, the choristers seem like extraterrestrial tourists (guided by Edmondo in circus master attire). They are excited to see the main characters’ interactions but initially puzzled by their emotions. For Act II, they don purple priests’ robes and crosses; they seem to regard what they’re seeing (Manon’s acceptance of Geronte’s jewels and caresses) as a quasi-religious ritual. Perhaps they’re confused by earthly customs? They cheer for Des Grieux when he secures a place on Manon’s ship to America; for these tourist-spectators, this is the story’s happy ending. They don’t see the final act. In America, Manon and Des Grieux are alone on a bare stage, harshly lit from above by office building-style fluorescent lights.

Kristīne Opolais (Manon) and Jonas Kaufmann (Des Grieux) © Wilfried Hösl
Kristīne Opolais (Manon) and Jonas Kaufmann (Des Grieux)
© Wilfried Hösl

Kristīne Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann have performed these roles together before, and it shows. They can hardly keep their hands off of each other when they share the stage, which makes Des Grieux’s amorous obsession more credible. They are also well-matched vocally, with very distinctive voices that nonetheless blend well in their duets. Of course, each shines individually as well. In Opolais’ “Sola, perduta, abandonata”, she shows off a variety of vocal textures, from pure and airy to harsh and edgy. She doesn’t always navigate register transitions smoothly, but she is strong on both the low and high notes in this wide-ranging role. This marks Kaufmann’s first appearance after a run of illness-based cancellations, but he seems to be in full voice. Even when he’s falling to his knees, lying on the ground, or rolling around, he produces his signature dark, resonant sound. His voice is particularly glorious in the final act when he frantically urges the dying Manon to respond.

As Manon’s brother, Markus Eiche makes an impression with his warm baritone voice and his casual portrayal of unapologetic greed. Roland Bracht’s Geronte is a creepy, vindictive lecher with a foot fetish, but he’s at least one who sings very well. Okka von der Damerau astonishes with her vocal power and clarity as the lead madrigal singer in act two.

Under the baton of maestro Alain Altinoglu, the Bayerische Staatsorchester produces a crisp, energetic sound. The timing is precise, and the dynamic choices are clear. The string section lingers on a few especially lyrical moments, but that’s to be expected in Puccini. The overall sound is excellent, and its only fault is that it occasionally overwhelms the singers. The same praise and criticism apply to the choristers: wonderful singing (and acting), but it’s frustrating when the soloists are drowned out.

Kristīne Opolais (Manon) and Jonas Kaufmann (Des Grieux) © Wilfried Hösl
Kristīne Opolais (Manon) and Jonas Kaufmann (Des Grieux)
© Wilfried Hösl

At the end of the opera, the production team was greeted with the usual scattered boos. But the naysayers were quickly drowned out by more appreciative audience members. The talent and hard work of the cast, the skilled and precise conducting by Altinoglu, and the coherent and unusual production by Neuenfels all deserve enthusiastic applause.