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Baden-Baden: Proficient Puccini as Easter Treat

Baden’s Easter Festival centerpiece was a solid production of Manon Lescaut that was well-intended, well-designed, and well-performed.

Everything about this production was lavished with the highest production standards. The stars were first tier. The staging and designs were fresh and eye-catching. The pit was peopled with some of the best musicians in the world. So then, why was I left somewhat wanting at curtain fall? Hmmmm.

Perhaps it was that the assembled forces worked so hard at ‘play-acting’ the fire of passion, that they forgot to put any real firewood in the stove. Much of what was on display seemed ‘busy’ and externalized, when the youthful score cries out for internalized commitment and sincerity to complete it. Too, re-setting the story during the German Occupation of France, while not really damaging, did little to ground it in the proper emotional frame of reference.

Disclaimer: I adore Eva Maria Westbroek. Ever since I thrilled to her triumph at the Paris Opera in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (one of the greatest performances I have ever experienced) I have been won over by every subsequent encounter. And Ms. Westbroek certainly does well enough by Manon. Her full-bodied, generous soprano has an über-feminine appeal that communicates especially well once past the naiveté of Act I. She is a fearless actress, entering into each confrontation scene or sexual encounter with abandon. She invests her lines with dramatic coloring, and she can crest over the orchestra one minute, and scale down to sweet piano phrasings the next, although the voice occasionally loses pliability coming off high volume singing. Eva is a consummate vocal actress, and the coloring in the death scene was profound.

That said, the timbre of the voice is not quite the right fit for this particular heroine. The silver and cream that are needed to limn such passages as In quelle trine morbide are not hers to command. And she was not well-served by her costumes, a pity since otherwise Fotini Dimou designed uncommonly fine attire for the production. Ms. Westbroek has a somewhat generous figure, and the period silhouette was not as flattering as another era may have been. Puccini’s Minnie (Fanciulla) proved a fine match for the talented soprano. His Manon Lescaut seems less so, and while she is incapable of giving less than 110%, I wonder if she will continue to pursue the part. All the admirable craft was on full display, but the final sheen was missing.

As Des Grieux, Massimo Giordano has a lot going for him. He is HD-telecast-Poster-Boy handsome, cutting a lean and youthful figure. If only his tenor were not also ‘quite’ so lean. He was never ineffective, and his Italianate lyric sound was bright and clean. I feared for his success at the start when his conversational delivery was nearly inaudible. By the time he launched into Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde, Mr. Giordano was on firmer ground, and the voice grew in confidence and stature as the act progressed.

But to an audience of a certain age (that would include me), for better or worse, we have Placido and Luciano in our ears in this role. Massimo is a fine artist with a committed delivery and absolute understanding of the character and how to vary his expression. While he is well-suited to Massenet’s Des Grieux (which he has also performed), Puccini’s big climaxes are ‘just’ beyond his reach. To his credit, he paces himself well, his voice is well-schooled and attractive, and he knows how to approximate the required spinto heft by tightening up his focus and straightening the tone. It works. . .for now.

Lester Lynch was a pleasure to hear as Lescaut. Mr. Lynch has a ravishing, rolling baritone with power to spare, and excellent hook-up from top to bottom. His assured vocalizing was impressive and welcome. As Geronte, Liang Li unleashed a malevolent, dark, searing voice that was not only deployed with craft and power, but was also capable of subtlety and nuance. Young Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai was boyishly appealing as Edmondo, one of the best-rounded, spontaneous performances of the night. His effortless lyric tenor and coltish, animated stage movement brought considerable life and sparkle to Act I. He was having such a good time as the joking student that it was infectious. All the featured roles were well taken, and in a bit of luxury casting, Magdalena Kožená commanded our attention as the Singer in Manon’s boudoir. Walter Zeh’s chorus was excellent throughout, dramatically engaged and musically precise.

The ‘Festival’ aura was largely provided by the Berlin Philharmonic’s informed reading under the accomplished baton of Simon Rattle. Merely having one of the world’s top orchestras present in the pit is cause for rejoicing, of course, and there is considerable pride in, and buzz about having landed their services. But they earned their prolonged enthusiastic ovations honestly with a performance that revealed colors and gradations that usually get over-looked. Maestro Rattle presided over a well-shaped rendition that not only capitalized on Puccini’s early promise, but also maximized the effect of less well-developed passages. What score doesn’t benefit from virtuosic playing? Manon Lescaut never had it so good.

If the physical production posed more questions than it answered, it was never uninteresting, frequently captivating, and always thought-provoking. We were seldom allowed to forget that France was being occupied, and the looming menace of soldiers intent on enforcing order was ever present.

Rob Howell has designed imposing sets that seem to be a skewed version of French locales as re-imagined in the style of overstated Fascist monolithic architecture. At curtain rise we are bowled over by stage-filling circular stone steps (slightly akimbo), a colonnade atop the stairs with a train station high upstage (yes, Manon arrives on a train to grand effect). Stage right main floor and stair area is filled with students and “citoyens” milling and partying, provoking the soldiers to nervously close ranks whenever the group activity go too synchronized. Stage left there is an Art Nouveau “inn” with practical balcony, and a down stage settee perfect for more intimate moments. Peter Mumford has lit the production beautifully, nowhere more so then in this opening setting with its different areas, and varied interiors.

With his production team, director Richard Eyre has devised some intriguing interpretations. For one, this production is far sexier than usual. Bottoms get grabbed, legs are kissed, petting is encouraged, and breasts are there to be fondled. This inhibition establishes an atmosphere that informs (excuses?) Manon’s fecklessness.

I loved the addition of a tango dancer (Saulo Garrido) in the bedroom entertainment mix. Having him dance first with Manon, and then adding Geronte, titillated us with a ‘three-way’ image, all the while it established that Manon and Geronte were clearly still having an active sexual relationship. When Des Grieux returns to her and the great Act II duet commences, clothes get removed during a seductive cat and mouse game and the pair winds up in bed. I loved Manon’s high-school-girlish taunting of Geronte as he discovers the indiscreet pair.

Mr. Howell’s setting again impressed, the whole founded on another version of big rounded stairs (now stage left), with an entrance door high atop, and a (poorly kept) secret escape door under the staircase down left. The huge painted screen facilitated costume changes, the bed was sumptuously appointed and the floor-to-ceiling windows rising stage right powerfully communicated the wealthy environment. In the direction, there was a lot of playful jostling invented between the heroine and her brother that alleviated her well-established boredom. In fact, Lescaut had much more dimension than usual, and he actually came in wounded in Act III when the gunfire started, adding yet another dynamic.

That dock setting boasted a massive rounded platform above jail cells, with a looming prow of a ship above and behind it all. The ship accommodated a drummer that added good effect to the deportation scene, which was notable for its masterful uses of levels. For that pesky and troublesome “desert” scene, Mr. Eyre’s version was set in the massive ruins of scenic elements we had already experienced, suggesting psychological ruins. A bold stroke that made as much sense as a desert in Louisiana.

All in all then, Baden-Baden’s Manon Lescaut was a formidable achievement. It just seemed curiously to be the wrong one.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Manon Lescaut: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Lescaut: Lester Lynch; Chevalier Des Grieux: Massimo Giordano; Geronte de Ravoir: Liang Li; Edmondo: Bogdan Mihai; Innkeeper/Sea Captain: Reinhard Dorn; Singer: Magdalena Kožená; Ballet Master: Kresimir Spicer; Lamplighter: Arthur Spiritu; Sergeant: Johannes Kammler; Tango Dancer: Saulo Garrido; Conductor: Simon Rattle; Director: Richard Eyre; Set Design: Rob Howell; Costume Design: Fotini Dimou; Lighting Design: Peter Mumford; Chorus Master: Walter Zeh

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