Manon Lescaut, Easter Festival, Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany – review

The bars that are meant to imprison Manon Lescaut are so widely spaced that she could simply climb out between them. But no. She waits until she and her lover are escorted towards the huge ship that should take them to America. Apparently something goes wrong, because the next act finds them back in Geronte’s Paris stateroom, now bombed.

In fact it is pointless to quibble about details. Richard Eyre’s production of Manon Lescaut for Baden-Baden’s Easter Festival is one grotesque absurdity from start to finish. The action has been updated from the late Rococo to Paris during the German occupation, to no evident advantage. Rob Howell’s designs, which scream “I am an opera set!” from every corner, are vulgar and bombastic; Eyre commands battalions of supernumeraries who act like amateur theatrical caricatures, marching stiffly down oversized stairs to shift chairs on cue.

As the centrepiece of what is only the Berlin Philharmonic’s second season in its new German Easter residency, Manon Lescaut is more a complete void than a disappointment. The whole idea of the orchestra’s shift north from Salzburg was to take advantage of greater artistic freedom. Here, the entire town can take part, the players can make smaller projects fly, and the opera is liberated from the chains of Austrian conservatism. Supposedly.

Instead, Baden-Baden has teamed up with the Metropolitan Opera in New York to produce a feeble staging of a bad opera. Why this opera, why here, why now? If there were any reasons, they were not evident. Instead, this Manon Lescaut affords the dubious spectacle of a world-class orchestra performing inappropriately far from its own comfort zone. This is Simon Rattle’s first ever Puccini opera, and he marked the occasion by ensuring that few of the singers were ever audible, and that all of the work’s syntax was tangled into an incoherent jumble.

Even Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role could not redeem the evening. Normally a formidable communicator, she was reduced here to awkward posturing and forced vocal lines. Her Des Grieux, Massimo Giordano, sounded even more strained. After two acts in which he veered between two vocal settings (on or off), he mustered some subtlety for the end of the opera, but by then it was too late – any sympathy we might have felt for the egocentric Manon and her ineffective lover had already been crushed under the weight of indifferently cast minor roles and meaningless spectacle.

With the full creative potential of the Berlin Philharmonic, the pioneering enthusiasm that Rattle has shown in the past, and the lavish resources that Baden-Baden has put at their disposal, this Easter Festival has the potential to be a significant force on the German cultural calendar. In 2014, they have settled instead for tripe. It can, and must, get better.

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