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Puccini, Manon Lescaut: (new production) at the Royal Opera Stockholm 10.12.2005 (GF)

 

 

Sets: Lars Östbergh

Costumes: Annsofi Nyberg

Lighting: Hans-Åke Sjöquist

Choreography: Carina Jarlemark

Director: Knut Hendriksen

Conductor: Roland Böer

 

 

Cast:

Manon Lescaut: Sara Olsson (soprano)

Lescaut: Anders Larsson (baritone)

Chevalier Des Grieux: Lars Cleveman (tenor)

Geronte de Ravoir: Sten Wahlund (bass)

Edmondo: Ulrik Qvale (tenor)

An innkeeper: Per-Arne Wahlgren (baritone)

A singer: Susann Végh (mezzo-soprano)

A dancing master: Ulrik Qvale (tenor)

A lamplighter: Niklas Björling Rygert (tenor)

A sergeant: Björn Blomqvist (bass)

A captain in the Navy: Per-Arne Wahlgren (baritone)

 

 

This is only the second production of Manon Lescaut ever at the Stockholm opera, the first mounted on November 22nd 1929 and running until 1960, so it is 45 years since it was last seen. Incidentally the young Jussi Björling made his first appearance on the stage in the small role as the lamplighter in the third act in September 1930 and his penultimate performance in Stockholm was as Des Grieux in November 1959. It is interesting to note that another Björling, although not related to Jussi, sings the lamplighter in the new production.


Knut Hendriksen has, true to Abbé Prévost’s novel, which was the basis for Puccini’s five librettists, set the action in the 18th century, at least as far as the costumes are concerned. The sets speak a much more modern language: stylized metallic architecture in the first act in glaring contrast to the colourful crowd, stern and rigid in contrast to the almost frantic throng. The second act, playing in a vast red hall in Geronte’s luxurious flat with high glass-doors which gives a feeling of cold and alienation and just as cold is the third act’s harbour of Le Havre, with grey mists looming. Cold is definitely not the final act where an enormous sun against a black sky is the backdrop to the desolate plain, with drifts of sand through which Manon and Des Grieux stumble along. But it is again a forbidding milieu where the sun slowly sets and the last red streak disappears when Manon dies. Life is a struggle in ruthless surroundings, greed is the driving force for most human beings but true love can be the Redeemer. This may be a summary of Hendriksen’s gospel.

It has been said more than once that that the libretto of Manon Lescaut is no flawless masterpiece. The acts are disconnected and to make the proceedings more understandable, the summary of the plot in the programme also tells us what happens in the novel between the scenes that are actually set. A wise decision. Moreover the acts are rather longwinded with lots of “decorations” that create atmosphere but to the detriment of the central drama. From his next opera, La bohème, and onwards Puccini had a fuller control of the librettists’ work and went more straight to the kernel of the plot. Hendriksen is of course fully aware of this and has worked hard to fill out the longueurs with activities in which the admirable members of the chorus play important parts as comprimarios, swarming, mingling, dancing – and of course singing with real gusto. The opening scene in the square at Amiens is a real explosion, carnival-like with lots of “business”. In the second act Manon’s toilette is shown to the audience with the help of an enormous mirror and there are many ingenious ideas from the director to mask the lack of momentum in the plot. The roll-call of the imprisoned women to be brought on board the ship is of course a grateful to visualise and the ladies of the chorus grab the opportunities to show off. Against all this is set the desolation and feeling of death in the last act, from the orchestral intermezzo to the final bars. Sand, sand, sand. Des Grieux’ desperate search for water ends up with two handfuls of dry sand. Water is life – sand is death.



Roland Böer’s conducting could be characterized as vital, even forceful, which seems like a strange thing in Puccini, where subtlety normally is the order of the day, but Böer obviously sees a parallel with Tosca and even though this is no “shabby little shocker” it is indeed just as cruel. With fastish speeds he really kept things going and avoided sentimentality. The first act soothed with life and movement, the over-long second act felt surprisingly short and in the crowded third act he propelled the action relentlessly forward. And why not? The young Toscanini, who was no slowcoach, conducted the work in Pisa, just a year after its first performance, having had busy correspondence with the composer, who many years later wrote appreciatively about Toscanini’s ability to “bring life to my music with incomparable poetry, flexibility and impassioned temperament”. While not perhaps being a new Toscanini, Roland Böer definitely made the music come alive, abetted of course by the orchestra who have been in glorious shape lately.Of the singers Sara Olsson in the title role was excellent with much impassioned singing, not least in the last act. Her bright soprano shone effortlessly over the orchestra and she made a convincing portrait of the young girl: shy in the beginning, haughty in the second act and tragic in the remaining acts. The duets with Lars Cleveman were maybe the highlights of the performance. Cleveman is no newcomer to his role, he sang Des Grieux in Copenhagen a couple of years ago, and as always his was a deeply intense interpretation. Once or twice he was a notch overemphatic but otherwise this was a consummate reading of the part. He has a glorious voice with an Italianate timbre and lovers of full throated tenor singing got their full share in his set pieces. He is small of stature but his voice is anything but small – but make no mistake, this was no can belto singing, Cleveman can also express the finest nuances in a lovely half voice. Readers should be aware of that he also sings Don Carlo in the complete Naxos recording made some five years ago. He was even better as Des Grieux!

 



Italianate in timbre was also Anders Larsson’s Lescaut. In the first act his lowest notes seemed weak, but in the second he had no problems carrying them out. It was not a very subtle portrait though, emphasising the brutal side of the character. Trond Halstein Moe in the Oslo production made Lescaut a much nobler person. Veteran Sten Wahlund has retained most of his impressive bass voice and drew a sharply profiled portrait of Geronte, authoritative and frightening. In the lesser roles Ulrik Qvale was a good Edmondo and Susann Végh’s creamy mezzo-soprano was an asset as the singer in act two, while Björn Blomqvist’s demonstrated his thunderous bass voice as the sergeant in the Le Havre act.



The Oslo production, which I saw earlier this autumn (see review), was set at the end of WW2 and completely different, maybe more thought-provoking. But this, historically more correct version, has a validity of its own and can be confidently recommended.

 

 

Göran Forsling

 

 

Photographs © Bengt Wanselius

 


 





   

 

 

 
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