Germany Puccini, Manon Lescaut: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Choir Vienna, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Philharmonie Berlin, 26.4.2014
Eva-Maria Westbroek: Manon Lescaut
Massimo Giordano: Renato Des Grieux
Lester Lynch: Lescaut
Bogdan Ihai: Edmondo
Liang Li: Geronte de Ravoir
Reinhard Dorn: Captain
Magdalena Kožená: a musician
Kresimir Spicer: Dancing Master
Arthur Espiritu: Lamplighter
Johannes Kammler: Sergeant of the Royal Archers
Sir Simon Rattle has done many things during his storied career, from championing contemporary music at the Philharmonie to leading the Berlin Philharmonic in staged operas by Strauss, Debussy and others. Surprisingly, Manon Lescaut marks the first time Rattle has taken on a work by Giacomo Puccini, whose operas are among the most popular in the repertory. In fact, the last time the orchestra mounted an Italian opera was Tosca in 1982, under the leadership of Herbert von Karajan. Thanks to a well-selected cast of soloists, Vienna’s Philharmonia Choir and the unfaltering musicianship of the Berlin Philharmonic led by Maestro Rattle, Manon was worth the wait.
Earlier in April, the ensemble performed a fully staged Richard Eyre production of Manon Lescaut at the Easter festival in Baden-Baden in cooperation with the Metropolitan Opera. It will appear at the house in a subsequent season, but this concert version at the Philharmonie marked the Berlin debut.
Manon Lescaut was a turning point for the struggling Puccini. Its premiere in 1893 at Turin’s Teatro Reggio was a great success and paved the way for such well-known works as Madama Butterfly, La Bohème and others. The story, adapted from the 18th century novel L’histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, tells of Manon’s struggle to choose between a life of riches or one of true love with her impoverished suitor, Renato des Grieux. Although Jules Massenet had transformed the novel into an opera a few years before, Puccini insisted on doing his own version, against the advice of his publisher. “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion,” Puccini stated.
Under Rattle, the orchestra seemed to have taken to Puccini’s Italian treatment and succumbed to his lush score at all the right moments. The Intermezzo that bridges Acts II and III was particularly thrilling; a wordless drama, the instrumental interlude represents Manon’s journey to prison in Le Havre. It opened with a melancholic interplay between violin and cello before building to a frenzied climax, with the orchestra taken to dazzling heights by the conductor. Such emotional swells could be felt throughout the piece as the orchestra responded to Puccini’s emotive music.
Overall, the singing was superb. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek threw herself into the part of a femme fatale, allowing the audience to easily imagine her in the fully-staged production. Occasionally her full, rich tone came across as pinched on the high notes, and “in quelle trinni morbide” would have benefited from a more legato treatment—she occasionally sounded breathy and unsupported in the lower register. But overall, Ms. Westbroek was an engaging heroine, singing with varied emotion and signaling that she was quite at home in the role. Tenor Massimo Giordano made a wonderful Des Grieux, and while he didn’t fully embrace the role physically—perhaps an unfortunate result of the concert format, a gray area in terms of acting expectations—he sang beautifully, sailing into the high register with ease and never sounding strained. This is a voice that I look forward to hearing again soon. Baritone Lester Lynch lent a commanding baritone to the role of Manon’s brother, Lescaut, and bass Liang Li sang the role of Manon’s wealthy patron with villainous ease. Magdalena Kožená appeared briefly to sing a solo during Act II, lending her pleasing dark tone to a madrigal.
In the final act, in which Manon is dying of fever and exhaustion as the pair traverse the Louisiana wasteland, the exchanges between the lovers, backed by the sensitive playing of the orchestra, created a simply spellbinding effect. This may be the crux of the desperate passion that Puccini aimed to capture in his score. Manon isn’t ready to die, and likewise, Westbroek isn’t ready to lose our attention. She continued to give a full performance, keeping a lengthy death scene entirely engaging, while Giordano seemed to put the entirety of his emotion into delivering the final phrases. After Manon uttered her final word (“muore”) the swelling motif from the Intermezzo returned, bringing undulations that could represent the rise and fall of the heroine’s brief life. The bottom line? Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 30 years for the next Italian opera from Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.