I probably should have known better than to go to this typical Staatsoper revival with Roberto Alagna and Norah Amsellem, but I did anyway. Allow me to advise you of its content before you let this happen to you. Andrei Serban’s production seems rather interesting, but what is onstage is more an impression of a production than a production. Musically things were plausibly French, but they were not plausibly very good.
Massenet, Manon. Wiener Staatsoper, 5/16/2011. Production by Andrei Serban (revival), conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with Norah Amsellem (Manon), Roberto Alagna (Des Grieux), Tae Joong Yang (Lescaut).
Andrei Serban’s production is set in the 1930’s Paris, with frequent references to film (hanging posters) and some surreal touches. In what could be unprecedented Staatsoper cost-cutting and time-saving, the chorus mostly sings from the pit and some of the supernumeraries are cardboard cutouts of various film celebrities, but they’re a part of Manon’s world of artifice and isolation (oh, the ever-popular “modernist alienation” card). Act 1 takes place in a train station, Act 4 takes place in a Moulin Rouge-type place with a claustrophobic mirror reflecting gambling tables, and Act 5, where the hopes of glitz promised by the movies has vanished we get a bare stage with some vaguely relevant projections of the simple truths of grass and water. (The projections during the set changes include one night scene with disconcertingly modern cars in it.)
With the right Personenregie and casting to go with this atmosphere, I could see it working pretty well, but it didn’t come together this evening. The Manon/Des Grieux scenes are intended to be intimate while the bigger ones are more stylized and choreographed, but both were messily executed. I got the impression that bits like the Act 2 guardsmen were actually originally witty, but only a few hints of this remained. (They had around four or five days of rehearsal for this, we have documented proof.) Also, it is except for the movie posters monochromatic, but apparently all Staatsoper productions are like this. Some atmospheric melodramatic old movie-style acting was still had from Roberto Alagna (who sang in the premiere of this production a few years ago), but for the most part it was generic.
The biggest problem was Norah Amsellem’s Manon. The production is designed for a Manon with a confident, modern sexuality (who could this have been? hint: she suffered a wardrobe malfunction in front of the German press earlier this week) but prim and thoroughly unglamorous Amsellem doesn’t seem the type to leave a half-full wine glass next to her bed, or to stumble around in Act 5 in a full-length beaded evening gown. She went through the motions, but something was missing; a more conventional romantic interpretation may have worked better for her. Manon is a problematic character who is pretty much going to annoy me no matter what, but this didn’t seem to be a way of solving the problem. Amsellem’s singing was stylistically strong but her thin, quavery tone is not easy on the ears, her coloratura is poor, and she held the high notes in the Cours la reine for a lot longer than I wanted her to.
Roberto Alagna gave a strongly acted performance as a convincingly youthful Des Grieux (Alagna is going to be working the “youthfully impetuous” thing straight up to retirement, I think). Sometimes he slipped into tenorial schtick, most grievously in “Ah, fuyez, douce image,” but mostly was the most engaging element of the performance. Vocally he was uneven as well, at best strong and passionate and confident. Unfortunately he lost the orchestra in several places in “Ah, fuyez,” and tried to float “En fermant les yeux” but it didn’t work very well, with a tenuous sound aspirating up to the G natural, and the final high A sung in falsetto. Both singers did best with the St.-Sulpice scene, calling for the most full-throated singing. (This is actually the first time I have seen this opera live. I’m not sure how I know the score as well as I do. Huh.)
After I gave them credit for being good just recently, the orchestra was at its worst and turned in a very sloppy and unbalanced performance. Jesús López-Cobos’s conducting lacked flexibility and rhythmic life, as well as those coordination issues. The supporting cast was OK but uninspired. Extra credit, however, for Caroline Wenborne as Javotte’s delightful little dance break at the very end of Act 3 Scene 1.
Several performances remain. Also, if you are interested in the production, much of it is on YouTube with Alagna and Netrebko (it was broadcast on TV, but is not available on DVD). Here’s a bit:
Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper