Juan Diego Flórez Makes an Uneven Debut in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Manon

AustriaAustria Massenet, Manon: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper / Frédéric Chaslin (conductor), Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, 1.6.2019. (JMI)

Nino Machaidze (Manon) & Juan Diego Flórez (Des Grieux)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper Michael Pöhn

Director – Andrei Serban
Sets and Costumes – Peter Pabst

Manon Lescaut – Nino Machaidze
Des Grieux – Juan Diego Flórez
Lescaut – Adrian Eröd
Le Conte des Grieux – Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Guillot de Morfontaine – Michael Laurenz
Brétigny – Clemens Unterreiner
Poussette – Ileana Tonca
Javotte – Svetlina Stoyanova
Rosette – Zoryana Kushpler

My trip to Vienna came to an end with a performance of Massenet’s Manon, the main attraction of which was the stage debut of Juan Diego Flórez in the role of Des Grieux. It is the third time that I have seen this Manon and, as previously, Frédéric Chaslin was in charge of the musical direction. He is an important conductor and quite familiar with this opera, but the truth is I expected more from him – his conducting fell below what I had experienced on the earlier occasions. As always, the orchestra and chorus of the Wiener Staatsoper did a fine job.

Juan Diego Flórez had sung the part of Des Grieux just once before, a little over a month ago in a concert version at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. It is a well-known fact that the Peruvian star has long wanted to move beyond his light-tenor Rossini repertoire, where he has reached a truly insurmountable level. But his debut as Des Grieux raises some questions. Flórez is still a light tenor, and Des Grieux demands more vocal weight, someone more in line with what Alfredo Kraus was in his day. It is not that Flórez did badly – he is an outstanding singer – but it is a problem of vocal suitability to the character. The best moment of his performance was the famous ‘Dream Song’ of Act II, which he sang with exquisite taste, but he fell short in passages like ‘Fuyez, fuyez’ in Act III, and even more in the Hôtel de Transylvanie act.

The character of Manon was nicely covered by Nino Machaidze, who had joined Juan Diego Flórez in the Paris concert. If I am not mistaken, this was also her debut in the full opera and she did well, with a voice appropriate to the role and a comfortable stage presence. The least convincing moment – which had a lot to do with the production – came in the Cours-la-Reine scene, where there was very little glamour on display.

The remaining characters in the opera figure much less prominently than the two protagonists. Baritone Adrian Eröd was a correct Lescaut, while the Conte des Grieux of Dan Paul Dumitrescu was both correct and sonorous. The remaining singers were all good in their parts.

The staging is the well-known one by Andrei Serban, who moves the action to the 1930s. The set in Act I includes a train station, while the Cours-la-Reine becomes a Moulin Rouge-type show and the Hôtel de Transylvanie is a gambling spot. The other acts are more traditional, and the costumes are appropriate for the times.

There are some odd aspects to the stage direction. There are virtually no extras – they are replaced by wooden silhouettes on stage. Guillot de Morfontaine is not a rich old man but rather a young man, which I think works against understanding Manon’s behavior. Both Lescaut and Brétigny are no more than pimps. In the ensembles, the chorus is not on stage but placed instead in the pit.

It was the first performance of Manon this season, and the Staatsoper was once again full. The audience responded warmly to the artists, although there was no great enthusiasm, while the biggest ovations went to Juan Diego Flórez.

José M. Irurzun

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