Graham Vick having already produced “Manon Lescaut” in a traditional manner, a production with which he admitted to being less than pleased with, decided to take a fundamentally different approach for this production at the Teatro Filharmonico, Verona. Instead of presenting it as a simple narrative, Vick represented the work as a “morality lesson,” in a modern day setting, but with references to its original 18th century context. A pre-perfomance photograph of Manon and Des Grieux in each others arms on a giant pink teddy bear, or another one of five figures dressed as school boys, wearing large plastic clown heads, suggested that this could be a challenging, if not an alienating experience for the audience. As it turned out, however, such concerns were unwarranted, as this was an accessible, colorful production, which was both dramatically taught and insightful. A run through of the acts will illustrate the idea behind the production, although it is unlikely to convince those who find such meddling and obscure approaches to their liking.
Act one is set in a classroom, replete with desks, chairs, and a blackboard. The room is an 18th century construction, but set upon exposed flimsy foundations of rock and filth. The scene opens with general chaos; schoolchildren, dressed in uniforms, are enjoying themselves in the usual naughty way associated with unsupervised children. And so it is here the “morality lesson” begins. The children are observers and participants. Amongst the fun and games Geronte arrives. He is a man with money and immense power and used to getting what he wants, and his eye has now turned towards Manon, an upstanding schoolgirl of good character, although somewhat naïve. Over the course of the opera the audience watches as Manon and Des Grieux are dragged down into the filth of the foundations, which become more prominent as the opera progresses. The message is clear: the power of money corrupts and destroys those who are tempted by its glow, and also those who come into their sphere of influence.
Act Two shifts the scene for the “morality lesson” from the classroom to the stage, to an 18th century theatre. The behavior of the protagonists in this act is seen in its most brutal form. Manon is having a tattoo designed on her ankle, while the tattooist snorts a little cocaine. Lescaut is portrayed as a bit of a chancer, without much of moral backbone. Manon engages in a few suggestive sexual acts with all and sundry, including her brother, but then suddenly realizing what was happening quickly withdraws. Towards the end of the act, Manon, having decided to run off with Des Grieux, is still loath to leave without the jewels, and is too slow in fleeing from the scene, and is arrested by soldiers. The act ends with Manon being manacled to a child’s swing, a reference to the infantile-erotic world in which she has been swept into. Geronte leaves the stage with a new young girl on his arm. Manon has already been forgotten.
Metal Cages & Filth
Act three was probably the most visually gripping of the scenes and exceptionally well choreographed. The prostitutes in individual metal cages are suspended above the stage, which is now a lot higher as the foundations push upwards. As the sergeant calls out their names, each prostitute is lowered and walks onto the boat. Around the sides of the stage stand the children, watching the “morality lesson” unfold. In Act four Manon and Des Grieux are now trapped in the filth of the foundations with no way out. The children having seen enough have left, or leave as the act progresses. So ends the “morality lesson.”
This was certainly a long way from a traditional reading of the work, but was effective nevertheless. It stayed true to the underlying narrative of the original, but was presented in a manner that forced the audience to confront the reality at the heart of the drama, shorn of Puccini’s saccharine sentimental gloss. It is a strategy which, if done well, always has the potential to elevate Puccini’s works to a higher level, free from the self-indulgent sentiments that Puccini himself seems to have cyclically promoted.
Marina Bianchi, the director for this reprise of Vick’s production, headed an excellent team which included: the scenographer, Andrew Hays, who displayed imagination in creating the visually gripping sets, which at the same time successfully carried Vick’s underlying concepts; Kimm Kovac, the costume designer, who was equally successful in delivering Vick’s vision for the work; the choreographer, Ron Howell, who did a splendid job in managing the on-stage movement in a natural and co-ordinated manner, and the lighting designer, Giuseppe di Iorio, who brought a clear focus to the action through some well-placed thoughtful lighting.
On the musical side, this production was unlucky as Amarilli Nizza, playing the role of Manon, around which the whole drama revolves, was clearly unwell. It came as no surprise that, during the interval, an announcement was made confirming the fact that she was, indeed, suffering from a vicious strain of influenza. Of course, no blame whatsoever can be attached to Nizza herself, but the ramifications stretched beyond her own performance, as it created an imbalance amongst the voices, most noticeably in her exchanges with Lescaut, Geronte and Des Grieux. On occasions, even the orchestra seemed to be too generous to the singer’s needs, a compromise that detracted from the musical impact.
Yet there was still aspects of Nizza’s performance to admire, not least her stamina and courageous decision to continue after the interval. Although in Acts one and two she struggled bravely, but with little impact, in Acts three and four Nizza showed glimpses of what we could have been witness to, if she had been in good health. Obviously still not in perfect condition, her voice now had a lot more vibrancy and a degree of power returned, allowing her to manage a more than passable performance. Her rendition of “Sola, perduta abbandonata” was very well delivered under the circumstances. Her improvement had knock-on effects to the rest of the cast and orchestra, which as a group was now possessed of more energy and drive.
Des Grieux was played by Gaston Rivero. His voice is powerful indeed, and would probably have benefited had the orchestra played with more force, given that he did not display a great deal of dynamic flexibility. Possessing colorful middle and lower registers, he sang well, however, his upper register was insecure, which compromised the overall sound. Unfortunately, the duets with Nizza, tended unsurprisingly, to be one sided, notwithstanding her Act four performance.
Lescaut was played by Giorgio Caoduro who gave a nuanced reading of the part, convincingly portraying the conflicting aspects of his character. Both his acting and singing evinced genuine quality. His voice was warm and flexible, which he used with finesse and intelligence to characterize the role. The aria “Sei splendida e luciante” exemplified his skills, which he sung with the self-congratulatory haughtiness of the ignorant, his phrasing subtle and expressive, every line perfectly inflected to elicit the meaning of the text.
Romano dal Zovo convincingly played the part of Geronte as a cold, aloof and distant figure. His voice was flexible with a warm texture.
Andrea Giovannini impressed in the role of Edmondo, producing an energetic and lively performance. He engaged fully with the character, looking every bit the stereotypical naughty school boy. His voice has a pleasing tone, his phrasing was intelligent and subtle.
The minor roles were undertaken by Giovanni Bellavia as the Sergente degli Arcieri and the Innkeeper, Alessia Nadin as Un Musico, both of whom essayed their parts in impressive style, with Bruno Lazzaretti as Un Lampionaio and the Maestro di Ballo and Alessandro Busi as Un Comandante di Marina, who also performed well.
The Coro dell’Arena di Verona under Maestro del Coro, Vito Lombardi, put in a well-acted and well-sung performance.
Lacking in Warmth
The Orchestra dell’Arena di Verona under the baton of Francesco Ivan Ciampa played with precision and clarity, and gave a detailed performance. Yet, for all its balance and accuracy there was a noticeable lack of warmth. The burnished intensity one associates with Puccini’s long phrases were clipped and given insufficient breath. Crescendos were controlled and were never really allowed to take wing. The symphonic sweep of Puccini’s music was subsumed into the detail. Having said this, the overall effect was not unpleasant and following the intermezzo between Acts two and three, which was delivered with great amount of warmth and feeling, the orchestra became more vibrant and alert, moving with increasing energy towards the finale.
When the leading soprano is incapacitated the problems can be more widespread than simply her own vocal performance as they impact on other parts of the performance, as happened in this case, in which the duets and interactions were unfortunately compromised. Although the effects were fundamental and certainly damaging, they failed to ruin the performance, which was a successful and imaginative reading of the work, backed by some otherwise very good performances. For sure, if Nizza is able to recover sufficiently for her next scheduled performance, this production of “Manon Lescaut” should prove to be a fine success.