As I wrote earlier in the season, we are having a surfeit of Manons: the MacMillan ballet, the Puccini opera ("Manon Lescaut") have already come and gone. The trilogy is now completed with Jules Massenet´s "Manon" at the Colón.
Apart from revivals at other theatres, "Manon" was seen at the Colón in 2003, so it was hardly necessary to have it back. Anyway, two comparisons were thus available: a) with the different handlings of the plot by MacMillan and Puccini; b) with previous Colón stagings. In the first case, the main difference is that in Massenet Manon dies at Le Havre, not in Louisiana. In the second, previous stagings since 1945 (the first one I saw, when I was 6) had the splendid décors of Nicola Benois (first seen in 1931, but since 1945 also in 1952, 1954 and 1959), the charming ones of Jacques Dupont in Margarita Wallmann´s tasteful régie in 1970, the relatively renewed vision of Graciela Galán in 1984 and the traditional concept of Rubén Berasain in 2003. We now had David McVicar´s production from Chicago, following the dangerous García Caffi trend of importing everything when he has a theatre of integrated production at his disposition.
I´m afraid McVicar seems to have read the wrong book: his inspiration apparently comes not by the Abbé Prévost´s opus but by the Marquis de Sade. Indeed, Prévost´s "The story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut", first published in 1731 and then revised in 1753, although hypocritically considered "scandalous" at that time, is mild indeed compared to any of De Sade´s perverse writings, and it is also written in very classic style. And of course Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille´s libretto, according to Mssenet´s sweet temperament, avoids starkness and is often oversentimental. Manon is fifteen at the start and has already been a naughty girl, so her family wants to send her to a convent; but Des Grieux falls in love with her and knowing that old Guillot plans to sequester her, he elopes with Manon to Paris. There they live happily until De Brétigny offers her a life of wealth; but she remains enamoured of des Grieux, "rescues" him from Saint Sulpice, where as a prospective priest is much admired by the ladies; she leads him to gamble at the Hotel de Transylvanie, and there Guillot avenges himself: she as a prostitute is sent to the colonies (Louisiana); but in this version she dies at Le Havre.
She´s not really a prostitute, rather a woman in love of both Des Grieux and luxury, and the Chevalier is too weak to resist her. Lescaut, her soldier cousin, is an accomplice of De Brétigny and a gambler. Important points: De Brétigny is tax collector-in-chief, and Guillot, no less than the Minister of Finance! (maybe that was what provoked scandal, rather than Manon). As a picture of dissolute mores, "Manon" is certainly interesting, but always with taste, elegance and witty phrases. McVicar transforms it into a catalog of lewdness and voyeurism, everything heavily accented, often tasteless and overwrought. I disliked it in the Barcelona Liceu DVD (saved by the singing of Villazón and Dessay) and I was even more bothered seeing it in the theatre, with rather explicit couplings and nakedness. The stage design by Tanya McCallin looks like a bullfight arena and is a unit set: its justification appears to be that it offers several rungs of people looking at the happenings and commenting on them by gestures. It has nothing to do with an Amiens tavern, a Paris apartment, the Cours la Reine, Saint Sulpice, the Hôtel de Transylvanie or the road to Le Havre. McCallin´s costumes are much better, and accord to eighteenth-century styles. The mock-Baroque ballet by Michael Keegan-Dolan was rather funny. The lighting by Paule Constable was at times crude and bothersome. They all made their local debut, though represented by curators.
Musically things went much better. Philippe Auguin, with a brilliant and long career, conducted (debut) with admirable control and musicality, and the orchestra responded fully. The Chorus had bad French but sang well. Anne Sophie Duprels (debut) was a provocative and incisive Manon, very professional and with strong projection; but I missed the delicacy a Manon should have: my parameters are Victoria de los Ángeles (1952 and 1954) or Beverly Sills (1970). John Osborn (debut), a trifle arid in the First Act, found his best voice in the Saint Sulpice scene and to my mind was the outstanding artist of the evening: his singing was admirable in phrasing, Gallic style and refinement; not quite in the level of Nicolai Gedda in 1970, but certainly the best Des Grieux I´ve heard since. Víctor Torres, even hindered by his very considerable girth, sang beautifully and moved with dramatic sense as Lescaut. Carlos Esquivel sang a dignified Comte Des Grieux, though his makeup should have made him older. The three cocottes were passably taken by María José Dulín, Daniela Tabernig and Gabriela Cipriani Zec. Gustavo Gibert gave us an elegant De Brétigny. But Osvaldo Peroni´s Guillot was a disaster: a grotesque gargoyle badly sung and with impossible French; no, the "vieux galant" is a vanitous minister and should be played and sung with impeccable taste and elegance, such as Nino Falzetti did in all revivals between 1954 and 1984. The rest were in the picture, especially Fernando Grassi as the Tavern-keeper.
For Buenos Aires Herald