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Des Grieux Buries Manon
07 Feb 2010

Manon Lescaut in Lyon

If you want Italian opera go to Italy and hope for the best — like conductor Daniel Oren’s Manon Lescaut two years ago in Genoa.

Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut

Svetla Vassileva: Manon; Misha Didyk: Des Grieux; Lionel Lhote: Lescaut; Alexander Teliga: Géronte; Benjamin Bernheim: Edmondo; Stuart Patterson: Dance master; Franziska Rabl: A singer. Orchestre et Chœurs de l'Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Metteur en scène: Lluis Pasqual. Sets: Paco Azorín. Costumes: Franca Squarciapino. Lighting: Pascal Mérat. Choreography: Montse Colomé.


May this caveat lay to rest all complaint that the new Manon Lescaut just now unveiled in Lyon had little to do with anything that resembles Italian verismo and melodramma.

If the Genovese Manon Lescaut belonged to the conductor, the Lyonaise edition went to the director, Lluís Pascal — though its conductor, Kazushi Ono, did make brilliant music. And this Manon Lescaut disproved the notion that Puccini’s first masterpiece is a fragile one. If it could survive Mr. Pascal’s treatment it can survive nearly anything.

The production is brilliant. Spanish theater director Pascal lavished a theatrical gloss over Puccini’s four brutal episodes in the rather brief but quite eventful life of the Abbé Prevost’s eighteenth century heroine, Manon. It was witty theater, the bold emotional strokes of verismo replaced by heady concepts — the mind was stunned with striking images.

Each of Puccini’s acts is a decisive action — deceit and flight, boredom and theft, deportation, and lastly death in the deserts of Louisiana. For metteur en scène Pascal it was all theater. Act one was evoked by a circus ringmaster. This was des Grieux’ friend Edmondo sporting the signature white tie and tails. Act two was a quotation. Manon starred in a sumptuous made-for-TV pastoral complete with the dowdily dressed Andrews Sisters crooning off-camera (radio is not visual). Act three was easier. It was a public parade of hissing prostitutes. Act four was the end of the line, Manon and des Grieux blasted by the light of an a vista (in view) large theater spotlight hammering home that all this could only happen in theater since we now know that there is too much water in Louisiana anyway.

Like in theater Mr. Pascal’s setting was functional rather than descriptive. Trains and tracks brought actors on and off the stage, save in the salon act where a motorized cart carried the camera. The desert act was the end of the line — train tracks terminated at a lone buffer stop, or bumper (the familiar shock absorbing structure you see at the end of tracks in train stations). This small structure on a bare stage served valiantly to absort the throes the dying Manon in her over-the-top sola, abbandonata, io, la deserta donna when in fact des Grieux had merely gone off to find some water (the desert horizon sky split discretely to let him leave the stage). Otherwise the splendid, svelt Manon, Bulgarian Svetla Vassileva sang the entire act flat on her back on the floor, resplendently.

To put it lightly tenor Misha Didyk gave it his all to the point that in the third act it seemed he was giving too much, and we feared that the several months between this performance and his promised Hermann in Lyon’s Pique Dame (April) would not leave enough time for him to regain his vocal composure. To put it mildly the several physical scenes with Mme. Vassileva seemed like they might possibly be quite real. Mr. Didyk is the same handsome, blond Russian who played des Grieux to Karita Mattila’s Manon in San Francisco.

How you might ask did the Puccini score fit into all this. Conductor Kazushi Ono enriched and enlivened the orchestration by emphasizing its coloristic details, reveling in them and then catching up with Puccini’s punch by effecting dizzying accelerandi for the final moments of each act.

Maybe Lluís Pascal got it right. Opera is a circus.

Flip back to Genoa a couple of years ago. The show was all in the pit. While conductor Daniel Oren is hardly Puccini, he can embody Puccini’s music pure and simple. On the podium he may at first be immobile, but he soon stomps and jumps, emitting grunts and snorts. He sings along (in good baritone) in the big numbers while expansively pulling his orchestra together to emote in one huge voice along with his inspired collaborators on the stage. He then appreciatively applauds his singers right along with the applause of a thrilled audience. Mo. Oren is a phenomenon.

These artists keep us coming back for more.

N.B. The Lyon matinee audience (January 24) did not indulge itself or the performers by applauding the arias.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a video clip from this production.

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

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