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Performances

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut, Thomas Oliemans as Lescaut, and Stefano La Colla as Il Cavaliere Renato des Grieux [Photo by Bernd Uhlig]
12 Oct 2016

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at Dutch National Opera

Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut, Thomas Oliemans as Lescaut, and Stefano La Colla as Il Cavaliere Renato des Grieux

Photos by Bernd Uhlig

 

On opening night there was really only one redeeming factor­ — Stefano La Colla’s Des Grieux. He is that rare vocal species, a spinto tenor with a beautiful, ardent timbre and the required heft for Manon’s tormented lover. La Colla rode all the role’s vocal crests without forcing. Theatrically, however, director Andrea Breth left him flailing until the last act. At the start of Act I, Manon and Des Grieux are already prostrate in the “bare and undulating” American landscape where she expires of exhaustion. The lovers keep rising from the sand to enact Manon’s life from the moment she and Des Grieux meet and fall in love in Amiens, against a sterile-white set. Disastrously for Des Grieux’s character, they move slowly, as if in a dream. Instead of a lover crazed by the irresistible but capricious Manon, he comes across as a morose semi-cadaver. La Colla’s connection with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s temptress was painfully awkward; he might as well have been making love to a dressmaker’s dummy. The playfully cynical “Tra voi, belle”, which Des Grieux sings before he sets eyes on Manon, was staged as an angry, misogynistic rant — a criminal waste of La Colla’s blazing, Italianate sound.  That he can actually act became evident in the final act, when Manon stops dreaming while dying, and actually starts dying. Called upon to act naturalistically, his singing also gained in intensity, but by then it was too late.

manonlescaut_80.pngEva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut, Alain Coulombe as Geronte di Ravoir, and Koor van De Nationale Opera

Being superlative actors, both Eva-Maria Westbroek and Thomas Oliemans as her foppish, parasitic brother, Lescaut, periodically broke through the flashback fog to breathe life into their characters. Unfortunately, although his musicianship was at his usual high level, Oliemans just does not have a baritone of Puccinian dimensions. His voice lacked enough impact at key moments. Westbroek looked exquisite in her 18th century finery. When not moving as if through molasses, she captured Manon’s many facets, most lucidly her boredom and frustration as Geronte’s mistress. The caressing looks she gave the jewels he had bought her made her inability to part with them, followed by her arrest and deportation as a thief, completely logical. Vocally, however, Westbroek was not at her best. Her generous vibrato had a mind of its own and her unique, platinum timbre sounded steely. Moments such as the rueful “In quelle trine morbide” and Manon’s gavotte required more tonal tenderness. Westbroek brought her great skills as a tragedienne to the finale, although in “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” volume triumphed over pathos, not least because of Alexander Joel’s enthusiastic but unsubtle conducting.

Joel led the Netherlands Philharmonic and the well-prepared DNO chorus in a variable performance that was at times pleasingly ebullient, often too loud, and marred in places with unsure entrances and tempo tugging. The high point of the performance was Manon’s frothy levee and dancing lesson, the low point the Act II Intermezzo, with sawtoothed sforzandi and the tragic depth of a bowl of spilled milk. Uncertainty about tempo could explain why Alessandro Scotto di Luzio made an equivocal impression as the lovers’ ally Edmondo, in spite of his lovely lyric tenor and strong stage presence. In the supporting roles, only booming bass Guillaume Antoine as the Innkeeper and the Sergeant offered worthy support. Alan Coulombe’s Geronte was gruff without being intimidating. Eva Kroon’s Madrigal Singer and her chorus made a striking flock of nuns with outstretched wimples, but sounded thick and out-of-sync.

manonlescaut_017.pngEva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut and Thomas Oliemans as Lescaut

The nuns, like most other characters, were garbed in the sartorial hyperbole of Federico Fellini’s 1976 film Casanova. Moidele Bickel, who passed away while working on the designs, and Eva Dessecker, encrusted the cast in spendour. They even reproduced specific costumes from the film, such as the gold-and-silver insectoid outfit for the Dancing Master, in which Peter Hoare performed some embarrassingly silly moves. It was not clear how Breth’s tribute to Fellini served the opera, except as a superficial aesthetic glaze. Puccini’s sundry street characters in Act I were transformed into an immobile masked chorus in black. They suggested the clergy, Des Grieux’s designated destiny before fatal attraction intervenes, and also carrion crow waiting to feed on Manon’s corpse. Four acts later, the production had not explored these themes any further. Dance doubles casting Manon as a victim of male violence and other distractions were just more signposts to nowhere. In the meantime, the supposedly entangled lovers circled each other as if they feared contracting the plague. By the time they fell into each other’s arms on the sand dunes, nobody really cared whether they survived or were devoured by scavengers.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Manon Lescaut: Eva-Maria Westbroek; The Chevalier Des Grieux: Stefano La Colla; Lescaut: Thomas Oliemans; Geronte di Ravoir: Alain Coulombe; Edmondo/A Lamplighter: Alessandro Scotto di Luzio; The Innkeeper/Sergeant of the Royal Archers: Guillaume Antoine; The Dancing Master: Peter Hoare; A Captain in the Navy: Lukas Jakobski; A Singer: Eva Kroon. Dutch National Opera Chorus, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Alexander Joel; Director: Andrea Breth; Set Designer: Martin Zehetgruber; Costume Designer: Moidele Bickel † & Eva Dessecker; Make-up: Cécile Kretschmar; Lighting Designer: Alexander Koppelmann. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, on Monday, 10th October 2016.

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