The New York Times, NOV. 28, 2014
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Bayerische Staatsoper, München, Vorstellung 27. November 2014
A New Puccini Production Offers Explanations for Its Story's Gaps
Manon Lescaut at Bavarian State Opera in Munich
What was it that so offended Anna Netrebko?
A whiff of scandal preceded the opening of the director Hans Neuenfels’s new production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” here at the Bavarian State Opera this month, when Ms. Netrebko, the Russian star soprano who was to sing the title role, pulled out late in the process, citing artistic differences with the director. Was it rodents again? For a 2010 production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Bayreuth Festival, Mr. Neuenfels had dressed chorus members as giant padded rats. Would there be graphic scenes of depraved sex?

None of the above. For sure, much of the “Manon Lescaut” I watched on Thursday is grotesque and bleak, the product of a director who doesn’t shy away from self-referential cleverness and textual liberties. But in the end, the production’s alienating elements powerfully focus the attention on its characters’ struggles to assert their humanity and their passion in a shrill, material world. And the stark, neon-lit sets illuminate two dramatically fearless singers and the palpable chemistry between them. As Manon, the soprano Kristine Opolais turned in a dramatically honest and vocally assured performance. But the star of this show is the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who offered a blazing, no-holds-barred portrayal of her steadfast lover, Des Grieux. The orchestra, under the direction of Alain Altinoglu, sounded sensational.

Puccini’s adaptation of Antoine-François Prévost’s 1731 story of the passionate, fickle Manon, torn between her love for Des Grieux and her passion for money and bling, is a challenge for any director. The product of at least four librettists, the story jumps among as many different settings, with yawning narrative gaps in between.

Mr. Neuenfels offers texts of his own to fill in the void, some projected on the curtain during scene changes, others offered as footnotes on the back wall. Some are useful enough: Puccini never does explain why the two lovers are on the run in the final scene — in a fictitious Louisiana desert— but here, Des Grieux has killed the governor’s son, who was in love with Manon, in a duel. Other language is plain daft. “Better a slaughtered pig than vegan disappointment” is one fairly representative sample. As for the audience, Mr. Neuenfels offers this: “We search for tragedy like pigs for truffles.”

Perhaps that statement provides a clue to the chorus, whose members totter around like metallic Teletubbies in padded jumpsuits with enormous, exaggerated bottoms that make their feet look like pigs’ trotters. In the Paris scene — Manon, egged on by financial troubles and her venal brother, Lescaut, has left Des Grieux for a rich older man — the chorus members appear in plush scarlet ecclesiastical robes as they fondle her pillow and sniff her bed linen. Wearing colors redolent of wealth (silver) and power (scarlet), they represent the forces opposing love.

By contrast, the costumes (by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) for the principals are sober and unremarkable: black suits for the men, a somewhat more theatrical, elongated coat for Lescaut, who was sung with a glowing full baritone by Markus Eiche. Manon undergoes a process of unraveling, from the fetching young thing in beret and calf-length skirt of the opening scene to the corporate sexiness of her pantsuit and heels in Paris and the sinner’s shift she wears in Le Havre, after she has been arrested for theft and awaits her banishment to America. In the Louisiana desert, she appears disheveled, barefoot, in zombielike black.

The secondary roles are well cast. Dean Power brings a nervy, bright tenor to the part of Edmondo. The mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau is an alluring madrigal singer, the bass Evgenij Kachurovsky powerful as the comandante. Ulrich Ress is a creepy dance master with hairy stockings and a werewolf beard and mane. Manon is a capricious and contradictory romantic heroine, and Ms. Opolais’s coolly contained portrayal offers little psychological insight. The character’s own self-assessment is unreliable: Dying of thirst, she curses her beauty, when it is really her taste for luxury and willingness to let men make decisions for her that has brought on her downfall.

Vocally, Ms. Opolais captures something of that detachment. Her soprano is silken and supple, its center of gravity pleasantly full in the upper third of her range. But it would have been nice to see her take more risks, matching Mr. Kaufmann’s fearless commitment. He gives a riveting performance that pushes his naturally warm, dark-toned tenor beyond prettiness.

The extraordinary chemistry between the two leads makes the most lasting impression. Mr. Kaufmann and Ms. Opolais have sung these roles together before, this summer at the Royal Opera House in London. To say that they are comfortable with intimacy is an understatement; in the final, desperate scene in the desert, they paw, caress and clutch at each other. Mr. Kaufmann frantically tries to find ways to ease her discomfort, pushing wild strands of hair out of her face, pushing his jacket under her head as a pillow, covering her forehead in kisses. Even during the numerous curtain calls, they kissed, hugged and beamed at each other.

The promise of a Netrebko-Kaufmann power couple had fired up ticket sales ahead of the opening. If there were any regrets about Ms. Netrebko’s late departure, they were drowned in the prolonged ovations for Ms. Opolais.

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