Kungliga Operan Stockholm – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa & Giulio Ricordi after Abbé Prévost’s novel The Story of Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut – Inessa Galante
Lescaut – Gunnar Lundberg
Chevalier des Grieux – Tomas Lind
Geronte de Ravoir – John Erik Eleby
Edmondo – Klas Hedlund
Innkeeper / Captain – Ola Eliasson
A Singer – Susann Végh
A Dance-master – Ulrik Qvale
A Lamplighter – Niklas Björling Rygert
Sergeant – Michael Schmidberger

Chorus & Orchestra of Royal Opera Stockholm
Pier Giorgio Morandi

Knut Hendriksen – Production
Lars Österbergh – Design
Annsofi Nyberg, Hans-Åke Sjöquist & Carina Jarlemark

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 19 March, 2009
Venue: Kungliga Operan, Stockholm

Manon Lescaut. Photograph: Bengt Wanselius Kungliga OperanPuccini’s early opera, “Manon Lescaut”, premiered in Turin in 1893 less than ten years after Massenet’s opera on the same story, is a slightly uneven work that can nevertheless prove very satisfying in the theatre. “La bohème” was to follow three years later, and in that time Puccini’s craft developed enormously. The music and even the dramatic setting of “Manon Lescaut” show Puccini’s individual style in development very clearly. The opera has good tunes in abundance, some showcase arias, and moments of genuine pathos. Yet the drama does not always flow at a steady and tension-building pace, and the characters are less subtly drawn than their later counterparts in the mature operas. Puccini’s Manon is not always the most sympathetic of heroines, especially when compared to Massenet’s version, because we do not see (or even hear her) much in Act One as the young country girl destined for convent life, and by Act Two she has already left des Grieux and is firmly ensconced with the elderly Geronte. So the soprano playing the part has limited scope to make her loveable rather than just weak, immature or even downright silly! The pace of the drama quickens most satisfyingly in the second Act in the depiction of the events leading to her rapid fall from grace, and the final act offers Puccini’s first great death scene for any good singing actress.

John Erik Eleby & Inessa Galante. Photograph: Hans NilssonThis performance has a very strong central performance in the person of Inessa Galante, an attractive singer with a well-schooled, technically assured and beautifully creamy voice and stage presence in abundance. Her recordings gave hint of this many years ago, and it was satisfying to encounter this singer live at last. What impresses is her ability to shape and shade her singing over such a huge dynamic range – here’s one singer who knows the value of true pianissimos! Her singing of Manon’s most famous aria ‘In quelle trine morbide’ showed this ability at a rather slow speed, and was marred only by an initial friction with the conductor over the tempo in the opening phrases. The desperate final scene had genuine pathos helped by the darker overtones in Galante’s voice.

Sadly, the men were not up to this very high standard. Tomas Lind as des Grieux had all the notes but his sound does not really possess that open-throated Italianate quality throughout its range possessed by the best interpreters. In the big duets with Manon he occasionally sounded a bit over-parted, and then occasionally surprised by unleashing some gloriously ringing high notes. His Act One aria, ‘Donna non vidi mai’, which provides the opera with one of its most memorable melodies, did not make the impact it can. Lind is also not the most of communicative of actors and the character’s helpless and self-destructive infatuation with Manon did not really convince. He was at his best in the final desert scene in which he did not over-emote and thereby helped bring the sense of the futile waste of these two lives some force.

Gunnar Lundberg and Inessa Galante. Photograph: Bengt Wanselius/Kungliga OperanManon’s brother Lescaut is a tricky role in Puccini’s version of the story as one is never really sure what his motivations in respect of his sister really are. He seems quite happy to fix her up with Geronte and then to try and undermine that by re-uniting her with des Grieux. Gunnar Lundberg sang the role in an attractively big and open-voiced baritone, although with limited subtlety of expression. He’s not a naturally convincing actor alas. John Erik Eleby made about as much as anyone can of the manipulative and vindictive Geronte. Klas Hedlund turned in a good and pleasantly sung cameo as Edmondo, and the mellow tones of Susann Végh illuminated the passage with the Singer.

The orchestra was on fine form, the warm strings really squeezing out all the emotion of the famous ‘Intermezzo’, and elsewhere providing the brilliance and darkness of Puccini’s orchestral palette. Pier Giorgio Morandi’s conducting was big and bold – sometimes a tad overindulgent of the big moments and hurrying elsewhere, although avoiding a start-stop experience.

Knut Hendriksen’s production is a relatively straightforward telling of the story, but the stage designs of Lars Österbergh provided some memorable images particularly in Acts Two and Four. I liked the use of the overhead mirror in the second Act allowing us to see Manon’s face whilst she was sitting with her back to the audience, and whilst she was being dressed. Indeed the garish setting of Act Two emphasised well the emotional vacuum of Manon’s existence at that period. Perhaps the inn setting of the previous Act was a little too clean and did not contrast quite as well with later scenes. The desert scene designs evinced the heat and dryness of the wasteland, and the image of the setting sun mirroring Manon’s farewell to life was potent indeed.

Overall the performance improved act by act and proved that with good performances and a sensitive staging, “Manon Lescaut” deserves more productions than it currently gets.

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