Opera News, July 2009
VIENNA --- Manon, Wiener Staatsoper, 4/26/09
How many times has an opera performance seemed like it was named for the wrong character? Occasionally, more appropriate titles would be Verdi's Amneris (or Iago), Puccini's Calàf, or Richard Strauss's Die Marschallin. The crowd at Wiener Staatsoper on April 26 had come to see Massenet's Manon, but judging from its reaction, the opera should have been named for the Chevalier des Grieux --- Jonas Kaufmann.

Kaufmann has made good on his meteoric rise over the past few seasons. This is a voice that knows no boundaries, from Mozart to Verdi to Massenet to Wagner. While his tenor is heroic-sized with a rich baritonal hue, his technique is strong and versatile enough for him to handle extended passages pianissimo or in head voice with no discernible break. This was never so clearly evident as in the opening phrases of "Ah! fuyez, douce image," sung so sweetly in head tone that the audience collectively held its breath. But when drama was called for, Kaufmann unleashed his big, burnished trumpet and towered over all others, even when they were largely being drowned out by the misguided, heavy-handed conducting of Miguel Gomez-Martinez. The only other singer I can recall who could execute such a coup was Jon Vickers.

With his shaggy mane of raven curls and a permanent five-o'clock shadow, Kaufmann exudes sex appeal from his every pore, many of which we glimpsed as des Grieux exited his bed clad only in black briefs. Even in his first, fumbled meeting with Manon, punctuated by a "Why did I just do that?" slap to his head, he managed to be simultaneously goofy and erotically charged.

In the title role, Norah Amsellem was no match for Kaufmann, her tiny, dry soprano sounding negligible and getting no help from the podium. Andrei Serban's 2007 production was a vehicle created for and around the decidedly more extroverted Anna Netrebko, and the glamour of the premiere performances has not survived. There is still that outrageously slit, beaded gown that appeared in a poster all over the city when Netrebko modeled it, sitting on a bar with legs crossed à la Marlene Dietrich, but Amsellem simply looked uncomfortable in it, easily getting lost among a cast of scene-stealers.

Markus Eiche, who has made a huge impression in the lyric-baritone repertoire since he joined the company in 2007, was a lewd, conniving Lescaut.

Amid an excellent ensemble, including the unctuous Guillot de Morfontaine of Michael Roider and the avuncular but commanding Comte des Grieux of Dan Paul Dumitrescu, special mention must be given to the Brétigny of charismatic young Viennese baritone Clemens Unterreiner. Appearing in a multitude of comprimario roles, he has developed a security and presence that make you watch, for example, his Fiorello instead of Almaviva, or his Melot instead of Tristan. Larger roles (among them Sharpless and Gunther) are in the planning stages. In a house such as Staatsoper, an artist of Unterreiner's quality is indispensable.

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