Passion, desperation and glorious singing in Oper Frankfurt’s Manon Lescaut

GermanyGermany Puccini, Manon Lescaut: Soloists, Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester / Lorenzo Viotti (conductor), Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurt, 2.11.2019. (RP)

Joshua Guerrero (Des Grieux) & Asmik Grigorian (Manon Lescaut) © Barbara Aumüller

Director – Àlex Ollé / La Fura dels Baus
Sets – Alfons Flores
Costumes – Lluc Castells
Lighting – Joachim Klein
Video – Emmanuel Carlier
Chorus master – Tilman Michael
Dramaturge – Stephanie Schulze

Manon Lescaut – Asmik Grigorian
Des Grieux – Joshua Guerrero
Lescaut – Iurii Samoilov
Geronte – Donato Di Stefano
Edmondo – Michael Porter
Landlord – Magnús Baldvinsson
Musician – Bianca Andrew
Dancing Master – Jaeil Kim
Lamplighter – Santiago Sánchez
Sargeant – Božidar Smiljanić
Captain – Pilgoo Kang

Puccini was attracted to Manon: in her he found a character who spoke to him, especially the desperate passion of her all-consuming embrace of luxury and love. For this new production of Manon Lescaut, director Àlex Ollé has set the tragedy in present-day Europe, with Manon an undocumented refugee from the Middle East. Gone are the jewels, lace and minuets of the Ancien Régime in Abbé Prévost’s novel; in their place is the grim existence of a twenty-first century nomad who has fled her homeland. Ollé doesn’t attempt to make an old opera relevant for modern audiences, he simply makes it real and honest. In other words, verismo as Puccini himself envisioned it.

Before a note was played, a grainy black-and-white surveillance video captured a group of desperate people, including Manon, cutting a hole in a chain-link fence and creeping through it to cross the border. They succeed, and Manon is next seen in a dreary clothing factory, fending off the advances of her brutish boss. Her worried parents, presumably Muslim, want her back home. In the popular imagination, whether accurate or not, this is a fate comparable to being sent to a convent, Manon’s lot in the original story.

Ollé took surprisingly few liberties with the libretto. Instead of a carriage, Manon arrives by bus, her beauty immediately attracting the attention of Des Grieux and Geronte. Foiling her brother’s plans, she first runs off with the young, handsome, penniless Des Grieux, but then turns to the older, lecherous Geronte: she is not cut out for a life without luxury. Rather than Geronte’s opulent apartment, however, Manon ends up in his strip club as a pole dancer, stealing tips; the police sweep down to arrest her after she dumps Geronte for Des Grieux.

Facing deportation, Manon and other women, many in head scarves, are jailed in metal cages. (Ollé also included the seemingly now obligatory transsexual in the group.) The site of refugees in cages is a present-day reality, as is the fact that these women are the detritus of the modern world who cannot find a haven anywhere. A video of an endless expanse of ocean played before the final scene.

For Americans, it never made sense that Puccini’s lovers ended up in the deserts of Louisiana; it may have been uncharted territory for the Europeans for whom Prévost wrote the original play, but by the late nineteenth century it was clear that Louisiana wasn’t dry and barren. However, in 2019 the mere mention of America as a destination for refugees, especially ones from the Middle East, created a frisson unimaginable to Puccini, as had the sight of the cages.

The final scene is played on a bare stage dominated by the letters EVOL. The stage slowly rotates and Manon dies cradled in Des Grieux’s arms beneath the word that defined their lives together.

Lorenzo Viotti led a performance that was equal musically to the power of Ollé’s production. As youthful and dashing as anyone in the cast, Viotti’s reading of the score was grand and sweeping. He infused every phrase with the same energy and daring as the singers on stage did. The music that emerged from the pit was real and vital, delivering not only the desperation and passion but also the sweetness and tenderness of intense love.

As Manon, Asmik Grigorian was a revelation, surmounting Puccini’s arching melodies in waves of glorious sound. For all her wealthy aspirations, the crassness and glitz of a strip club suited this Manon: only her love for Des Grieux was pure. Joshua Guerrero’s Des Grieux was the very definition of passion, pouring out vocal gold. The two were wonderful in their respective arias and magnificent in the duets; physical contact with one another raised the level in their singing to thrilling heights.

Manon’s brother is perhaps the most complex character in the opera, and Iurii Samoilov captured him perfectly. There was just something so likable in Samoilov’s impish yet brutally practical Lescaut. He has no qualms about pimping his sister out to Geronte but, an enabler by nature, he likewise yielded to a love that swept all before it. Samoilov’s voice is fascinating too, a warm and rich baritone.

There was wonderful scene where Donato Di Stefano’s Geronte revealed his true feelings for Manon, feelings masked much of the time by his seedy appearance. In the strip club he gently ran his fingers up Manon’s leg while singing softly of her beauty and his love. For a moment his deep basso, generally fierce and menacing, turned light and sensuous, but soon he was trying to force her to leave with a bunch of leering thugs, who certainly had more than lap dancing on their minds.

Of the various other characters who pop up, Michael Porter’s Edmondo stood out. There was an ease to his stage presence that was also apparent in his voice, a robust lyric tenor that easily cut through the orchestra.

Oper Frankfurt’s Manon Lescaut has an immediacy to it that is rarely encountered in the theater. The musical components of the production were outstanding and, just as he had in Francesconi’s Quartett for La Scala (review click here), Ollé had my pulse racing with this Manon Lescaut. He is a director who really gets opera.

Rick Perdian

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