Netrebko and Guerrero impress in an eye-watering revival of Carsen’s Vienna Manon Lescaut

AustriaAustria Puccini, Manon Lescaut: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Jader Bignamini (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Anna Gettel) from Vienna State Opera on 8.11.2023. (JPr)

Robert Carsen’s Manon Lescaut Act II © Wiener Staatsoper

Director and Lighting designer – Robert Carsen
Set and Costume designer – Antony McDonald
Choreography – Philippe Giraudeau
Dramaturge – Ian Burton
Chorus director – Thomas Lang

Manon Lescaut – Anna Netrebko
Lescaut – Davide Luciano
Chevalier des Grieux – Joshua Guerrero
Edmondo / Dance Master / Lamplighter – Carlos Osuna
Geronte di Ravoir / Treasurer General / Naval Captain – Evgeny Solodovnikov
Innkeeper – Marcus Pelz
Musician – Juliette Mars
Sergeant – Simonas Strazdas

Drawing heavily on a previous review of a performance of Vienna State Opera’s Manon Lescaut in 2022 (review here) it was interesting to see how Anna Netrebko would compare with Asmik Grigorian who I saw then in Robert Carsen’s 2005 production now having its 45th outing. (Very much remained the same as I remembered it, though the two photos on the earlier review suggests at least two of the characters wore something different at some stage during the opera.)

Manon Lescaut is regarded as Puccini’s breakthrough work though it had a troubled gestation and it remains a mystery as to which of the five librettists involved adapting a story based on Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut – Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica – had most influence over the text we hear. If this wasn’t confusing enough Puccini himself and his publisher Giulio Ricordi might also have contributed themselves! So, it is not surprising that what we see and hear is lacking in dramatic coherence as it leaps forward in time so often. This didn’t matter to the audience at its 1893 premiere at Turin’s Teatro Regio as Manon Lescaut was a great success.

The opera begins with Manon, an 18-year-old girl, being taken by her brother (Lescaut) to live in a convent. Des Grieux, a student, falls madly in love with her at first sight in Amiens and he convinces her to escape to Paris with him. At the start of Act II we learn how Manon has quickly rejected her life of poverty with Des Grieux and is now living with Geronte, the wealthy tax-collector who had made plans to abduct her before she went off with Des Grieux. Geronte lavishes his money on Manon and she has everything she could ever want, but the fickle Manon is bored and longs for the passion she had with Des Grieux. Soon after she is reunited with him Geronte catches them together and has Manon arrested. During the third act Des Grieux and Manon’s brother, Lescaut, unsuccessfully attempt to help Manon escape from her captors because she is about to be deported to Louisiana, although Des Grieux is allowed to board the ship at Le Havre as a member of the crew. In the final act we see that Manon and Des Grieux have eventually escaped New Orleans, but Manon collapses exhausted as they cross a desert and dies but only after she has declared her love for Des Grieux one last time.

As before this short synopsis is essential for those less familiar with the opera because little of what I have outlined above – at least in terms of location – is recognisable in Robert Carsen’s version in Vienna. Carsen tells a different tale with – however intriguing it turns out to be in the end – the opera serving a Konzept rather than the other way round. Carsen cranks up the misogyny and concentrates on showing us how wealthy men can abuse the power money gives them especially over women who they believe are disposable in their world!

Edmondo is now a photographer and Carsen has the character return in different guises in the second and third acts. Des Grieux still wears a leather jacket and is entirely in black as if the singer was wearing his rehearsal clothes. We are in a rubbish-strewn shopping mall of grey concrete with windows displaying haute couture designs for women on one side and Puccini’s travellers’ inn, now a classy hotel, on the other. Manon is a rather plain looking bereted, bubble gum chewing girl with her battered suitcase accompanied by the tipsy – he almost always has a beer can in his hand – dissolute, inveterate gambler Lescaut in his brown leather jacket. Des Grieux and Manon appear to be instantly attracted to each other. The hoi polloi (the enthusiastic, sometimes jiggling chorus) look like partying students – they are also swigging beer – and they will eventually be seen chucking toilet rolls about and later stealing from Geronte’s discarded luggage. He has introduced himself as a tax collector but is more like a Mafia Godfather in camel coat and trilby. Geronte bribes the hotel manager with a wad of money and he arranges for the limousine (a Lexus) which is pushed onstage for the abduction. With Geronte and Lescaut distracted, Des Grieux – assisted by Edmondo – uses the car to rescue Manon and they leave for Paris. Geronte is placated by Lescaut who convinces him of Manon’s expensive tastes.

Antony McDonald’s single set is now transformed into Geronte’s luxurious penthouse with a cityscape to one side and an enormous walk-in closet full of the latest fashions and matching jewellery for Manon over on the other. Manon is on a couch having her hair and makeup done as well as getting a mani-pedi. Lescaut brings Manon news of Des Grieux before she chooses her outfit and guests with small champagne bottles in hand arrive for a party hosted by Geronte  who – surrounded by his henchmen with dark glasses – wanders on to observe her getting changed. Edmondo is now a fashion photographer and Manon and her backup singers in sparkly black dresses are shown making a video of the madrigal ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte’, complete with choreography and Juliette Mars’s attractively sung Musician in top hat and tails. The crowd disperses and Manon in a black satin number and stilettos assures Geronte that she will follow on later, but Des Grieux now arrives (dressed as before) and there is an erotically charged duet and he is soon lying on top of her on the couch. Des Grieux and Lescaut urge Manon to leave with them and she orders her servants to fill some suitcases with her clothes, shoes and jewels. Whilst there are no guards or archers as in the libretto, Geronte returns with his goons and brutalises Manon and the act ends just before he rapes her.

For Act III the dress shops are firmly shuttered and everything is in sickly green lighting. It is Edmondo who sings the lamplighter’s ‘E Kate ripose al re’ though he is still a photographer. An escape plot is foiled and the handcuffed Manon – who has been brought to Des Grieux – is taken away. Geronte’s still-drinking, finely dressed friends reappear to leer voyeuristically at some of Geronte’s discarded escort girls as paparazzi take pictures of them. A pitiful Manon is one of them and rushes to Des Grieux. Geronte now sings as Puccini’s ship’s captain as Des Grieux – who has faced off against him with a knife and has been gun-whipped for his pains – begs that if Manon cannot be set free, he wishes to share her fate. Geronte agrees and the pair go off together.

Robert Carsen’s Manon Lescaut Act IV © Wiener Staatsoper

Following this through there is, of course, no desert for the final act and Carsen has Manon and Des Grieux wander through the mall as in the first act now strewn with more rubbish than before and – looking more than ever like London’s Oxford Street in 2023 – this included discarded shopping bags. The shutters have come up and the windows display some of the frocks Manon once had in her closet. Manon is wearing a long trench coat and is not in a good way (why?) and begs for water (why?) and Des Grieux – looking exactly as he has throughout the opera – goes off to get her some. Manon finds a sparkling necklace lying about which Geronte had once given her before singing of abandonment and death. Des Grieux returns empty-handed and with a broken heart holds Manon as she dies.

What I heard – albeit through loudspeakers – was on this occasion as compelling as the staging because of the performances of an ensemble of accomplished singing actors. Carlos Osuna revealed a warm tenor voice and had all the charisma necessary for his enhanced role of Edmondo. As Manon’s brother, Davide Luciano had plenty of stage presence and sang with a characterful baritone whilst making Lescaut less of a pimp than some can be and more of a penniless scrounger with a conscience. The tall bass Evgeny Solodovnikov couldn’t fail to make the most of Geronte as a threatening and abusive bully accustomed to violent outbursts and having people do his bidding without question. However, I found his bass voice rather too weak for the role.

Des Grieux was sung by Joshua Guerrero who was replacing Anna Netrebko’s husband Yusif Eyvazov in the last two performances of the current run. Much as I like Eyvasov the American tenor was very much an upgrade. Guerrero was credible as a (mature) student and sang the wide-ranging role with robust, virile, attractive, open-throated tone. There seemed to be a genuine attraction between him and Netrebko’s Manon. Guerrero had all the passionate intensity for his big moments such as the impassioned Act I ‘Donna non vidi mai’ and vocally thrilling duets with Manon when their voices blended well.

I suspect this revival’s principal interest was Vienna-resident Netrebko as Manon. Well after a disappointing Act I, when her voice sounded slow to warm up, she hit her stride with her Act II ‘In quelle trine morbide’ which was achingly sad and exquisitely phrased ending with a floated ‘d’amor!’ of absolute perfection. She approached her venal role with an initial playful, girlish glee even though she is obviously not 18 anymore. Netrebko brought a wealth of expression to her climactic heart-wrenching ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ which remained – probably due to Carsen – more of a resurrection than a farewell to life. Nevertheless, Netrebko was still able to elicit significant sympathy as a victim of the men around her to bring a tear to the eye in these final moments.

Italian conductor Jader Bignamini led the always-impressive Vienna State Opera Orchestra in their account of Puccini’s score that had the uttermost sensitivity to its melodic sweep. It was intensely passionate where appropriate while it retained a flexibility which allowed the music to breathe. The cello and solo violin introduction for a sublime Intermezzo was as virtuosic as would be expected from members of the Vienna Philharmonic (with a significant number of women musicians for once).

Jim Pritchard

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