FRANKFURT – Puccini’s site-specific operas resist directorial intervention more vigorously than most. Sometimes, under pressure, they yield. Such a case is the fiercely updated but unabashedly dramatic Manon Lescaut that opened to general huzzahs on Oct. 6 at Oper Frankfurt.
Much of the cheering was surely for the resplendent Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian in the title role and the American tenor Joshua Guerrero, a true spinto making his German debut as des Grieux. But there seemed to be appreciation also for the direction of Àlex Ollé. Even diehard opponents of Regietheater might be willing to concede that this veteran co-director of the Catalan troupe La Fura dels Baus applied his concept with uncommon attention to the source materials and awareness of the emotional ups and downs of the central characters.
To describe the scenario – in which Puccini’s vulnerable 18th-century heroine, wearing sneakers, arrives by van at a contemporary bus terminal and finds employment as a pole dancer – is certainly to evoke a typical Eurotrashy night at the opera. Yet the courtesan of the original drama can be compared with exploited young women of any era. Older men remain on the lookout for willing victims. As for students, they still carouse and poke fun at their friends, even if they do not gamble as often as they once did.
Can we equate the exile of the fallen women in Act 3 with the extradition of illegal immigrants? Ollé tried it on, and it seemed to fit. Of course, a little surtitle tweaking was required here and there. Geronte (menacing as played by the resonant Italian bass Donato di Stefano, in sunglasses) could hardly ask for “una carrozza e cavalli” to whisk Manon to Paris. Instead he ordered “a fast car.” You can probably guess how the minuet with the dancing master turns out when it is set in a strip club.
To agree that these and a few other specifics more or less “work” in the new context is not to grant an updating an automatic pass. The point is to communicate and make real the timeless conflicts at the heart of the opera, and this the Frankfurt staging did well. It was interesting that after three acts of gritty contemporary detail (including a frightfully convincing detainment cage for the female illegals), Ollé rendered the finale in an abstract setting that seemed just as remote as the “desert plain on the borders of New Orleans” imagined by Puccini’s librettists. All we could see was the word “LOVE” constructed in giant sculptural block letters slowly rotating on stage. This word was visible earlier, at least partially, but its meaning was compromised by irony. In the end it was elevated by tragedy into something pure.
Sets by Alfons Flores certainly qualified as verismo in Act 1, as a brutalist slab of a roof reminded us of the grimness of so much public architecture. Emmanuel Carlier, a longtime member of La Fura dels Baus, furnished two videos, the first a prelude that established Manon’s illegal entry to Europe, where she finds work as a seamstress and is frequently propositioned, despite her assurances to her mother that all is well. A second film of rolling waves created a silent intermezzo between Acts 3 and 4, standing in for Manon and des Grieux‘s voyage to love-filled destitution.
The real intermezzo between Acts 2 and 3 sounded ravishing as articulated by the Frankfurt strings and shaped by Lorenzo Viotti. This young Swiss conductor has Puccini coursing through his veins. He allowed Guerrero scope for rubato in the lighthearted “Tra voi, belle.” If the voice sounded pushed in Act 1, it later found its focus. Ukrainian baritone Iurii Samoilov combined a rich tone with subtle acting as the sleazy but not quite heartless Lescaut.
Lesser roles were well attended to, vocally and otherwise, and the chorus, though denied a dramatic presence in Act 3, was robust. The center of attention, however, was Grigorian, a svelte performer who obviously was not cast only for her voice, although she might have been. It would be hard to imagine a better representation of Manon’s combination of passion, boredom, and recklessness.
One reason the production was a success was the exactitude with which characters were captured, not a virtue one can ascribe to many modernist extravaganzas. The most outwardly outrageous setting was the garish club of Act 2, which was apparently operated by Geronte. I noted at least one pair of liberated nipples.
Possibly a “classy” escort service would have reflected the situation more realistically. If this production reflects pole-dancing fairly, it is a tedious entertainment indeed. My appreciation of the performance increased as the ladies left the stage. Opera really is quite preferable. As the evening made abundantly clear.
Manot Lescaut continues at Oper Frankfurt through Nov. 23. For information and tickets, go here.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale.