“Manon Lescaut”, an opera by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica and the composer himself. Based on L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” van Abbé Prévost (1731). It was first performed in Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1893. This première was performed at the Dutch National Opera in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam on 10 October 2016.
Lescaut: Thomas Oliemans
Il Cavaliere Renato des Grieux: Stefano La Colla
Geronte di Ravoir: Alain Coulombe
Edmondo / Un Lampionaio: Alessandro Scotto di Luzio
L’Oste/ Sergente degli Arcieri: Guillaume Antoine
Il Maestro di ballo: Peter Hoare
Un Musico: Eva Kroon
Un Comandante di marina: Lukas Jakobski
‘The director is the most important personality involved in the production. His vision must supersede the requirements of the composer and librettist, the needs of singers, and especially the desire of the audience, those overfed fools who want to be entertained and moved.’
It could have been so beautiful. Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut starring the Dutch superstar Eva-Maria Westbroek. For once, the audience at the première in the Amsterdamse Muziektheater was full of anticipation. Before it began there was a slight buzz of excitement and expectation in the air, which was soon torpedoed by one of the most colossal disasters ever recorded in the annals of the Dutch National Opera. The guilty parties: director Andrea Breth, a repeat offender who directed a shockingly poor Macbeth last year, and of course the Dutch National Opera itself, which should have taken radical measures – come what may – to ensure that it would not offend another audience with a Breth production that wavers somewhere between excruciatingly boring and totally senseless, and the despicable arrogance with which the libretto, and hence the opera, is killed off. When will ‘modern directors’ finally learn how to tell a proper story instead of interpreting and undermining what’s there? ‘A hallucinating Manon (…) looks back at the important moments in her life in this new production,’ says the Dutch National Opera. Just don’t tell Puccini.
So what’s going on? Manon Lescaut is a ‘lyrical drama’ in four acts, and a whole army of librettists worked on it, including Ruggero Leoncavallo, Luigi Illica and the composer himself (!). The four acts take place in Amiens, Paris, Le Havre and America. A dramatic mishmash that opera buffs are happy to accept and which they may even come to appreciate and become highly amused by. And anyway, who cares? As Maria Callas once said: ‘It’s all in the music.’
But director Breth could not resist teaching Puccini et al a little lesson in libretto. Breth came up with a ‘concept’ (God save us!) completely devoid of aesthetics and decided to ‘unify’ all of those tedious Puccini acts that take place at random points in time and in different places by presenting them as a delirious dream in which Manon looks back at the events of her life. What’s more, this concept was jazzed up with several completely inexplicable characters, actions, attire and cringeworthy ‘humour’, culminating in a dance lesson in act II that is best characterised as an incoherent mess; the friends of Geronte di Ravoir were transformed into priests, one of whom wore a pair of sunglasses! Sunglasses, the height of profundity in Regietheater! Speaking of clichés, the way in which the female prisoners are staged in act III – an act that refuses to come to life – seems to come straight from a production by a popular theatre company in the 1950s. Okay, so now all the acts take place in the desert near New Orleans, a setting which Puccini originally only reserved for act IV. Deadly boredom is the result, caused by a virtually identical stage set for four acts, a stage which, moreover, was oppressively small in acts I-III.
Incidentally, if we as the audience are privy to Manon’s dream, then shouldn’t we also see Amiens, Paris and Le Havre instead of only a pseudo-desert? In other words, the concept is inherently contradictory, which is why it easily secures an honorary place on the list of Dutch National Opera’s most monumental failures. In part thanks to the stage direction of the characters, which zombifies the protagonists, and a Stefano La Colla in the role of Des Grieux who merely recites his lesson and is so lacking in passion that it would take a huge effort for him to even act as a scorekeeper at a darts tournament. Not for one second is there a spark between Des Grieux and Manon.
As is so often the case, luckily there’s still the music. Stefano La Colla may lack the necessary charisma to play the role of Des Grieux, but he easily sings high notes, though quite mechanically, which is entirely in line with his wooden movements. His ‘Donna non vidi mai’ was not inelegant but seemed to be coming from a jukebox or steered by an automatic pilot. We yearned intensely for a John Osborn, for example. Eva-Maria Westbroek bears little resemblance to the 18-year-old teenage girl that Manon is, after all, but this is probably a questionable case of framing on my part. To me, Westbroek evokes Wagner, and less so Manon. Though I should note that Breth’s stage direction has done Eva-Maria Westbroek a tremendous disservice. Fortunately Westbroek has a weapon that can overcome any kind of nonsensical stage direction: her voice, or more aptly: Her Voice. And her commanding opera personality. Her endorphin-arousing sounds again sent tremors of opera bliss through the hall. Her ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’, with beautifully lyrical and gently phrased piano singing, was a ray of light in this paucity of quality. And the compelling way in which she has Manon die is once again proof of her vocal depth.
Alain Coulombe as Geronte di Ravoir was also unable to escape Breth’s stage direction and was burdened with an idiotic way of moving and dance routines that were conceivably even more ludicrous. Nothing but respect for the way that he still managed to deliver a good voice performance in these bizarre circumstances. Thomas Oliemans, who puts in a strong singing and acting performance as Manon’s brother Lescaut, also deserves mention.
One of the few highlights of the evening was the elegant baton technique of conductor Alexander Joel, who does understand Puccini, as well as the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. The faintly Wagnerian-sounding Intermezzo, which for some odd reason was moved, featured a brilliant string section and was fortunately played behind closed curtain, so briefly we didn’t have to look at anything. We should thank Breth for not forcing a film projection on the audience, which is often the case here. Strangely, the Intermezzo was met by the audience with silence. Joel used a multi-coloured dynamic palette and proved that you can sometimes saw magnificent planks from fairly thick Puccini wood, which Joel at times burnished in a splendidly crude way and at other times gave a magnificent coat of varnish.
Anyone unfamiliar with Manon Lescaut and confronted with it for the first time during this performance by the Dutch National Opera won’t understand a bit of it. It defies belief that you’re supposed to first decipher a director’s dubious creative outpourings to be able to follow the opera’s story.
Indeed, following the performance there were loud boos for director Breth, which no doubt pleased her. After all, booing is a confirmation that the director has delivered a top performance. The audience left the hall: soli, perduti, abbondonati…
There are still performances on 13, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28 and 31/10/2016.
Olivier Keegel (Published on 11/10/2016)