Puccini Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera. What is Manon Lescaut really about? The Abbé Prévost's 1731 narrative was a moral discourse. Unlike many modern novels, it wasn't a potboiler but a philosphical tract in which the protagonists face moral dilemmas. In this production, key excerpts from Prévost are shown at critical points, not just during the Intermezzo. These are important because they underline the origin of the opera, and its deepest values. The staging is black and white, lit like an interrogation room, for such is its fundamental rationale. It's not a potboiler, not sentimental. but an uncompromising warning against the seduction by false values like wealth, glitz and short term shallowness. It says much about some audiences that they'd prefer things the other way round.
Hans Neuenfels's production, with designs by Stefan Meyer, captures the spiritual state of flux that is so much part of Puccini's opera. The action moves from place to place but the underlying theme is bleak. The journey starts at Amiens, a faceless place where everyone's en route to somewhere else. One characteristic of Neuenfels's style is the way he uses crowds.. In his Lohengrin for Bayreuth (read more here), the people of Brabant were shown as rats, since rats conform, but Neunefels treated them not as vermin but with sympathy and warmth. In Manon Lescaut, the townsfolk have garish makeup suggesting Georg Grosz-like malevolence beneath their well-padded uniforms. Anonymous figures appear, zipped up in body bags. Not "belle, brune et blonde" but dehumanized creatures, being trafficked, presumably to America. Suddenly, the casual, flirtatious bantering feels dangerous.
Neunfels's use of crowds also serves to highlight the central characters. Des Grieux (Jonas Kaufmann), Manon (Kristine Opolais) and Lescaut (Marcus Eiche) stand out, in sharp black and white, in full focus. This is absolute luxury casting, and so they should shine. Kaufmann and Opolais "own" these roles these days If anything, they were singing with even greater intensity than they did at the Royal Opera House production last year (read more here). Kaufmann's portrayal was exceptionally deep, enhanced by Neuenfels's emphasis on the moral and philosophical basis of Des Grieux's dilemmas, which are inherently dramatic in themselves.
In most productions, Manon's beauty steals the show. When Anna Netrebko pulled out of the part, many sighed with relief, since Opolais has the artistic courage not to need to be seen at her finest. When she sings, she creates a real Manon with all her insecurities and complexities. She dares depict Manon's inner ugliness, because she can also show her true beauty. Opolais may look tense in the first act and ravaged in the last, but that's all the more reason to admire her integrity. As she lies on the hard, bare stage that depicts the spiritual desert that is New Orleans, (where physical deserts don't exist), with her face gaunt and the dark roots in her hair showing, Opolais's voice transcends her surroundings. Manon is a true hero because she changes, develops and learns true meaning.
The staging of the Paris Act makes or breaks any production, since it confronts the obscenity of Manon's situation as, frankly, a one-man prostitute. The stage shrinks, lit by a frame of light suggesting a prison without bars, with cut glass objets de luxe symbolizing hard but fragile transparency. All is delusion, the makeup, the madrigals, the dancing. Geronte (Roland Bracht) fancies himself an artist. His friends and Abbé's aren't fooled. They've come to perve at Manon's body. In London, many in the audience were aghast that the scene was shown as live porm, but that's exactly what it is, a rich man showing off to dirty old men like himself. It's not meant to be pretty, as any reading of Puccini's score makes clear (Read more here). Neuenfels shows Geronte kissing Manon's naked leg. The Dancing Master is depicted as an ape, which adds even more horror. Yet Neuenfels also shows that the Dancing Master and Manon have much in common, both reduced to performing animals by the corruption of wealth. Geronte's friends and, signifcantly, Abbés, supposedly celibate holy men, are dressed as cardinals in fuschia pink. This is not casual detail, for it connects the brutality of a society that reveres woman as virgins, but objectifies them as sexual creatures to be abused and disposed of.
At Le Havre, Manon is seen in anonymous grey. The gloating crowd with their red wigs now seem demonic,as they are indeed, since they've come to enjoy seeing the degradation of women as prisoners. In contrast, the Sergeant seems more human, since he lets Des Grieux slip aboard, no doubt breaking rules. By the time we reach the all-important final act, all external trappings are disposed of, too. Manon and Des Grieux are alone, in almost cosmic isolation. All distractions stripped away, Kaufmann and Opolais can release emotions through the sheer power of their singing. Divested of material things they transcend the world itself.
Superlative conducting from Alain Altinoglu, too, leaner than Pappano, but more suited to this elegant, austere conception. Of the three Manon Lescauts in the last two years London, Baden Baden and Munich, this new production is by far the most incisive and intelligent. Good opera goes far beyond the first line in a synopsis. As Manon learns, life isn't about glitzy trappings, but about human emotion.