Massenet’s 1884 opera needs no further introduction. According to French director Olivier Py, however, it is ripe for fresh exploration. Py likes levels, layers, movement. An old hand of the Genevois stage – Lulu, Tannhaüser, Tristan und Isolde, Faust  – he is well known for his ambitious and daring productions: spinning stages, tortured Catholicism, dancing nudes.

Patricia Petibon © GTG | Carole Parodi
Patricia Petibon
© GTG | Carole Parodi

All of this comes through in his Manon, which is impressive, given that he’s limited by the ephemeral means of the temporary opera house: a wooden construction inherited from the Comédie Française and shipped over from Paris in crates – covering for the Grand Théâtre, which is in construction through 2018. Pierre-André Weitz’s remarkable constructions help set the scene: black grille walls sliding open and closed, neon hotel signs, disco balls, a spinning LED wheel of fortune. Py’s sense of showbiz inhabits Daniel Izzo’s choreographies, as well: the tone is set in the overture, where a parade of topless ladies in sequin Daisy Dukes enter riding on the backs of crawling men in suits.

Throughout, the dancers are essential to the tone of the opera: feline, ironic – and yes, often nude. As their arrival foreshadows, this production is either interested in leaning uncomfortably into the sexism of the original or in illuminating the gendered hypocrisy of the century, depending on your perspective. At times, it feels like it can’t quite make its mind up. 

Bernard Richter (des Grieux) © GTG | Carole Parodi
Bernard Richter (des Grieux)
© GTG | Carole Parodi
There was a tentative feeling to the start of this opening night. Pitch wavered in the first ensembles, and there was a little flub in De Grieux’s “En fermant les yeux”. However, the production seemed to gain in confidence as it progressed. That said, there were no truly exceptional performances amongst the secondary roles, though Pierre Doyen was a charming Lescaut and Bálint Szabó gave the Comte a lovely rich accented bass. 

Perhaps the issue was simply that they were all overshadowed by Manon herself. Patricia Petibon alone is worth two of the production’s stars. She is a supernova. Her voice was flawless, warm, with a rich texture to her sweetness and charm to boot. Her glissandi were liquid, her high notes smooth. She sings almost constantly, right up at the edge of the tessitura – Manon is not a restful role – and yet never sounds strained. She was applauded after almost every one of her arias. 

Hard to live up to, and indeed, Bernard Richter’s acting was thrown into stark relief by his prima donna’s talent: her Manon is successively charming, childish, seductive, bereft, boisterous, tender, coquettish, cruel. His Des Grieux is foppishly good-looking, and has enormous lungs. However, Richter’s smooth and powerful voice entirely came into its own in the second half, and his performances gained in warmth as the love story progressed. The Chevalier’s duet with his father, the Comte, was quite wonderful, and by the big duets in the Saint Sulpice scenes, the pair were sending shivers down everyone’s spines. “N’est-ce plus ma main” was quite exquisite. 

The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was on vivacious form, from the playful strains of the Prélude to the last tragic burst of Act V. The viola and horn soloists were particularly stellar, pulled forward into the spotlight by Marko Letonja’s baton, as strong and smooth as the voices they melt into. Meanwhile, the Choeur du Grand Théâtre de Genève sounded consistently spectacular – their entrance particularly effective, standing in stereo on either side of the wooden bleachers that hold the crowd. Acoustically speaking, certainly, the Opera des Nations has nothing to envy its more permanent cousin.

Patricia Petibon (Manon), Bernard Richter (des Grieux) and Marc Mazuir (Monsieur de Brétigny) © GTG | Carole Parodi
Patricia Petibon (Manon), Bernard Richter (des Grieux) and Marc Mazuir (Monsieur de Brétigny)
© GTG | Carole Parodi

A few small things felt off about the production: choosing non French-speakers for speaking roles is always a tricky thing, especially in a francophone opera house, and this may sound petty, but having dancers snapping their fingers in time with arias was quite distracting. 

These little idiosyncrasies felt like symptoms of something a little unsteady at the heart of Py’s vision: at times, the burlesque shaded into the grotesque, and I found myself wondering if he had picked the right vehicle for his folie: after all, Manon is not a farce. Yes, its roots lie in opéra-comique; yes, it has its clichés, its light-hearted games, but by dialling those up to eleven, whilst keeping the dramatic love scenes serious, the production runs the risk of seeming schizophrenic – or at least, tiring out its audience. But I would happily have listened to Patricia Petibon for another three hours. 

****1