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Puccini: Manon Lescaut at the Norwegian Opera, Oslo, on 24.9. 2005 (GF)

 

 

Musical direction: Olaf Henzold

Direction: Daniel Slater

Sets and Costumes: Robert Innes Hopkins

Lighting: Simon Mills

Choreography: Lynne Hockney

Fighting instructions: Jeppe Beck Laursen

 

The Cast:

Manon Lescaut – Liana Aleksanyan (soprano)

Lescaut – Trond Halstein Moe (baritone)

Chevalier des Grieux – Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor)

Geronte di Ravoir – Magne Fremmerlid (bass)

Edmond – Marek Lipok (tenor)

The Landlord – Karl Pudik (bass)

A Singer – Katarina Wikström (mezzo-soprano)

A dancing teacher – Gabriel Birjovanu (tenor)

A Sailor – Eusebiu Cristea (tenor)

Leader of Geronte’s Men – Øystein Skre (bass)

A Captain – Gregg Santa (bass)

 

Chorus and Orchestra of Den Norske Opera




 

 

Opera productions sometimes are like London buses: you can wait for ages and suddenly everybody plays the same work. That happens in the Nordic region this autumn. On September 14th Oslo mounted a new Manon Lescaut, Helsinki followed suit and actually overlapped the Oslo performances, beginning on September 23rd and on December 10th Stockholm’s new Manon will be premiered. Unfortunately I will not be able to see the Helsinki production this autumn but I hope it will be played again next season.

Oslo hasn’t seen Puccini’s break-through opera since 1980 and when it now appears it is basically the one played by Opera North last season. It plays in Paris, Le Havre and in French Guyana as originally intended but has been transported in time to 1945, i.e. immediately after WW2 with references to what happened in the occupied countries when young women fell in love with soldiers from the enemy army. Sixty years after the war this has again popped up in Norway, where the so called “tyskhororna” (German-whores) were castigated and humiliated, and not only the women but also their completely innocent children, resulting from the liaison. In this production there is a scene in the first act, taking place as a pantomime in the background, where a young woman is surrounded by a group of people and at the end of the scene she leaves the stage with a placard around her neck, reading “Collaborator”, a portent of what will happen in act two when Geronte has Manon Lescaut arrested and accuses her of also being a collaborator.

 



We have from the outset been prepared for this since the opera opens with a filmed sequence from the end of the war, showing a mob attacking some poor sinners. Once one has accepted the move in time the production works extremely well. The stage picture is built around a permanent construction that is a realistic Café de la Gare (Railway Café) in Paris in the first act, Geronte’s luxurious apartment in the second, the port of Le Havre in the third and finally as a ruin in the desert in the fourth act. Everything is extremely realistic, costumes according to after-war fashion – in the first and third act quite murky colours, where Edmondo’s red jacket in the first act stands out from the crowd, as it should since he acts as a kind of master of ceremonies. It is smoky, something that further enhances the realistic feeling but also to some extent affects the auditorium, ventilation not being particularly efficient in the house. Oslo is sorely in need of a new opera house and according to plans a quite boldly designed building will be inaugurated in 2008.

The second act in Geronte’s upper class dwellings is sharply contrasted to the other acts, light and posh. This is also the act that feels overlong, not just in this production, I hasten to add, since the director does what he can to keep the action alive, but I have always thought that this is a miscalculation from Puccini – or rather his librettists. In all his operas there are scenes that serve more to create atmosphere than carrying the action forward, but from Bohème onwards he had learnt his lesson and knew how to knit a tauter drama. Just as in all his mature tragedies there is also some lighter, more humorous streaks, and the most obvious one is the scene in Act II when four “ballet” girls in white led by the singer, perform a parodic pas de quatre, waving thin veils. Refreshing and entertaining, making the audience giggle audibly.


There is only one interval, after Act II, which makes the plot hang together. During the well-known intermezzo, based on Puccini’s early string quartet movement I Crisantemi, which here becomes the prelude to the second part, a new film sequence, also in black and white, is shown. It is a frightening, slow-moving scene showing, mostly in close-ups, Manon’s hair being piece by piece cut off, until almost nothing remains (which was the traditional treatment of the collaborators) and then, most horrible of all, a heated iron burning the swastika onto her skull. There is also on stage a fair amount of violence and cruelty, so much so that a special “fighting instructor” is listed in the credits. The mass-scenes in Acts I and III are skilfully handled and there is a lot of well thought through action taking place behind and around the central drama. In many productions I get the feeling that some of this business is there just because the director doesn’t trust the drama to maintain the audience’s interest and so people have to walk, or bike which has been fashionable lately. In this performance everything seems fully integrated and logical.

Olaf Henzold, chief conductor of the Norwegian Opera since 2001, leads a well-paced performance, bringing out the Puccinian melodies in all their glory. Too sentimental? No, I didn’t feel it that way. There is enough thrust and forward movement to more than compensate for the saccharine, that has to be there, after all that is part and parcel of Puccini’s tonal language. If there is any criticism at all it is rather that he tends to overpower the singers in one or two instances.

The chorus are good, having a lot to do in Acts I and III, and they have a lot of individually chiselled parts to perform, and the many minor solo parts are well executed. The five major soloists also act convincingly and especially Trond Halstein Moe as Lescaut dominates the stage whenever he appears, especially in Act II. He also sings extremely well with a powerful well-produced baritone that I would like to hear again in a more meaty roll. Magne Fremmerlid as Geronte is another good actor in a part where he has fairly little opportunity to show off his singing. This is primarily a character role and his bass voice is well suited to this character.



These two are the only native Norwegians in the highly international cast list, where Marek Lipok as Edmondo, besides being a wirepuller, also displays a fine lirico-spinto voice with good ring in his little arietta in the first act. But in this opera it is of course the two main characters that are vouchsafed the real lollipops and at the performance I saw they were in safe hands, or rather throats. The young Latvian Aleksandrs Antonenko as Des Grieux is a sensational singer indeed and seems destined for a great career. He is handsome, he is a good actor and he has vocal resources that reminds me of the young Placido Domingo. He sang all his set pieces brilliantly, powerfully but also with lyrical warmth. He is already booked to sings this part in Vienna and also in Stockholm later this year. The even younger Armenian soprano, Liana Aleksanyan, only 24, had no difficulties to portray the only fractionally younger Manon Lescaut. In her impersonation, Manon becomes a very vulnerable creature. Contributing to this impression is a slight flutter in her voice, which felt absolutely right, but a Puccini soprano also needs brilliance to ride the orchestra in the key moments, and when she opened up she shone like a beacon. Her lower register is weaker though, and there were moments when Olaf Henzold could have held back the orchestra to let her be heard. In a few years time her voice will probably fill out even better, but she is already a mighty impressive singer, reaching tragic heights in the long final scene.

There will be no more performances of Manon Lescaut this season but hopefully it will be revived in years to come. Don’t miss it then.

 

 

Göran Forsling

 

Photos: Erik Berg

Copyright: Den Norske Opera

www.operaen.no

 

 



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