Even after more than a decade since its premiere, Andrei Serban's production of Manon, updated to the post World War 1 period, remains stylish and effective. In a film noir style, lighting is dark, props are minimal, and performers move in a stylised manner. The ominous foreboding of the next war to come pervades during the casino scene, with violence shown in the background. The promenade of the Cours-la-Reine becomes the Moulin Rouge in this production. Manon and des Grieux’s Paris apartment is indicated by a black and white photograph of the Eiffel Tower from a window projected in the background. After Manon’s death on a desolate stage with background screen showing grass and waves, the curtain falls to the same Moulin Rouge scene: there is no salvation for Manon and her Chevalier.

Nino Machaidze (Manon Lescaut)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Serban’s hand as a gifted theatre director is most prominent in his handling of the crowd scene. In Act 1 – the courtyard of an inn, here altered to a railroad station – cardboard figures on stage substitute for actual figures. A small part of the orchestra pit accommodates steps for members of the chorus, thereby reducing their number on stage to avoid cluttering and to focus attention on the unfolding of the plot. The woodwind section is located next to the brass but that did not seem to upset the balance of the orchestral sound. The main performers always sing in stage front, facing the audience. They are well directed, and their characters developed as full human beings.

Nino Machaidze is perhaps a little mature and sophisticated as a naive 16-year-old Manon on her way to the convent, but she was convincing as a woman aware of her allure towards men and her desire for material comfort while in love with a young Chevalier. Her voice, round and opulent, especially in the middle, was most successful when Manon sang of her inner turmoil and conflict. Her duet with her lover’s father, Count des Grieux, on the promenade as Manon asks him of her former lover, was sung with moving tenderness and pathos and was to me one of the unexpected highlights of the evening. The versatile house bass Dan Paul Dumitrescu was her worthy partner here, and made the most of his brief role with his sonorous and mellow singing and his solid physical presence.

Adrian Eröd (Lescaut)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Another strong supporting performer was Adrian Eröd as Manon’s cousin Lescaut. Instead of a weak and susceptible gambling addict, his depiction was that of an elegant and emotionally distant dilettante. His clear and high baritone fitted the characterisation like a glove. His agile and precise stage movement contributed to making the character very much in tune with the roaring 20’s and decadent 30’s. As the two men who contribute to Manon’s downfall, Michael Laurenz as Guillot and Clemens Unterreiner as Bretigny both sang with sinister arrogance. The three actresses and ladies of pleasure, sung by Ileana Tonca, Svetlina Stoyanova, and Zoryana Kushpler, were a delightful trio with charm and coquetry.

The Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez is expanding his repertoire into heavier French and Italian roles. He impressed with his vocal artistry in his role debut as Chevalier des Grieux. His technique remains rock solid, his legato is smooth and sustained and his voice above all retains the brilliant focus that makes the audience sit up and pay attention. While he has a beautiful stage presence with easy smiles and ardent manner, his acting skills are somewhat limited. He often stands with his arms outstretched to make an emotional point. But musically he was superb, his two arias “En ferment les yeux” in Act 2 and the famous “Ah, fuyez douce image” in Act 3, showing off not only his high notes but his various vocal colours and his astonishing musicality, both earned an extended ovation.

Nino Machaidze (Manon Lescaut) and Juan Diego Flórez (Chevalier Des Grieux)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

French conductor Frédéric Chaslin drew impassioned and thrilling performance from the Vienna Staatsoper Orchestra. His tempo was often luxurious to showcase the singers. Yet at crucial dramatic turns he urged the orchestra to add speed and volume. 

Serban’s dark and yet charming vision of the doomed love in France on the eve of social and political upheaval had a worthy revival with an excellent musical performance all around.