A censure of the misogynistic treatment of turn of the century America-bound immigrants forms the backdrop of the Liceu's relatively new co-production of Manon Lescaut, premiered a year ago at the Teatro de San Carlo in Naples. Davide Livermore’s scenography and stage direction sets Manon's tragic story in this abject historical context. The action takes place in a five minute “flashback”, the old Chevalier des Grieux revisiting a soon to be closed Ellis Island in New York, the point of entry for the fated lovers some 50 years previously, reliving the story in his imagination. 

Gregory Kunde (Des Grieux) and Liudmyla Monastyrska (Manon) © A. Bofill
Gregory Kunde (Des Grieux) and Liudmyla Monastyrska (Manon)
© A. Bofill

From the outset, the spotlit white-suited character remains silently present, an innocuous Doppelgänger for Gregory Kunde’s character, sometimes mute witness, sometimes the silent usher. Though aesthetically impressive, the pastel and grey palette in stage and costume, soft lighting effects and the use of the same internal space for the four reinterpreted scenes of this opera – train station, brothel, harbour-side prison and the entrance hall of Ellis Island – fatigues. Livermore uses certain cinematographic techniques, such as freeze frame for the more crowded scenes to lend intimacy to the duets, or the melodramatic gestures and postures in des Grieux and Manon’s love scene in Act 2, reminiscent of early silent cinema. The staging in Act 4 makes it difficult for the audience to understand Manon’s final moments, with words and surroundings in clear contradiction.

Whilst Liudmyla Monastyrska debuted the title role with good projection, she did have a thicker sound to her voice and this, together with a lack of convincing vocal interpretation of the young Manon, made her portrayal of this fickle, egotistic character difficult to believe. At the higher range she produced potent vocality, pushing through denser orchestral moments and was capable of maintaining an audible piano, particularly in Act 4, stretched out on the floor in her death scene. Her duet with Kunde in Act 2, “Oh, sarò la più bella!” was powerful but had little finesse, while Act 4's “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” was solid. Her Italian diction was stretched at times.

Liudmyla Monastyrska (Manon) © A. Bofill
Liudmyla Monastyrska (Manon)
© A. Bofill

Playing des Grieux is a vocal challenge and Gregory Kunde produced his more convincing performance in the higher register. He sang “Donna non vidi mai” discreetly but, as the opera progressed, his voice clearly warmed and he became more expressive. The two protagonists lacked chemistry and their characterisation as young lovers did not convince.

Carlos Chausson has sung the elderly Geronte many times and offered a masterful performance with a rich, well-projected bass-baritone, and superb diction. He appeared comfortable in the dual role of tax collector and brothel owner and produced a clear visual focus. Serbian baritone David Bižić as Lescaut complemented Chausson’s Geronte very well. Minor roles included an excellent performance from Mikeldi Atxalandabaso as Edmondo, des Grieux’s friend in Act 1 and Carol García, the Musician in Act 2. 

The chorus performed irregularly, singing in unison acceptably but at times the male section more in harmony than the female and the whole chorus on occasion behind the conductor’s beat.

Albert Muntanyola (Old des Grieux ) © A. Bofill
Albert Muntanyola (Old des Grieux )
© A. Bofill

Emmanual Villaume conducted energetically and was fully engaged, with the orchestra producing probably the finest musical performance of the evening, the Intermezzo. Puccini had visited Bayreuth before he wrote Manon Lescaut and the lush orchestral background played to the love duet in Act 2 does have a passing melodic resemblance to the same act in Tristan.  

Des Grieux senior ends the opera, coming to stage front, pinning his photo of Manon to the dropped stage curtain and walking off – the curtain then becomes a wall for the stiff identity portraits taken at immigration entry. Manon is clearly only one of many forlorn stories.