Showing to a perplexingly lukewarm Viennese audience at the Wiener Staatsoper last tonight, Puccini's Manon Lescaut was a pure delight stemming from the warm, rich, practiced voices of leads Fabio Armiliato (Renato Des Grieux) and Daniela Dessi (Manon Lescaut). In all honesty, OC passed half the performance with her eyes half-closed, bathing in the fabio-lus duets of Fabiela Dessabio, and relegating Carsen's chaotic direction as an abstract turkey leftover to the overstuffed, graying audience. We do love Carsen, a man-child filled with such polished, retro, big-spender ideas, but when he's bad, he gets it all wrong. And this Carsen production is all sorts of wrong. He steam-rolled over the libretto and infused the direction in his own lofty, updated, modern visions, while leaving the poetic corset to flounder hopelessly on stage. The most glaring detraction was setting the majority of action not in a public square, but instead in a half covered luxury mall, gleaming windows displaying retro ladies evening wear.
By Act IV, when Manon is supposedly dying in the desert, it just doesn't make any sense as she begs Des Grieux to find water sprawled on the faux marble floor in front of the opulent window displays. I mean, break into Applebees or CVS or something...or better yet, drag your dying a$$ over to Starbucks and get a frap. whatevs. it was too difficult to suspend belief, and it just didn't work. Carsen was so far from the libretto and mainstream conceptions that I almost thought again he had liberally altered the libretto himself to suit the new action as he did with Lenny's Candide at La Scala earlier this year.
Act I opened with the chorus mercilessly pruned of any members over 30, dressed as rejects from those GAP commercials that ran a few years ago and loitering about the half-covered mall area. A homeless man loitered in the back on his makeshift cardboard bed, and trash littered the marbled pavement. Des Grieux swaggered out in a black leather coat and a hoodie underneath. ick. Armiliato's supreme skillz thankfully made the costume melt beneath his creamy voice, and his wardrobe thankfully wasn't a gigantic detraction. "Donna non vidi mai" was exceptional, a clear and powerful delivery.
Manon entered in a blue trench, a platinum blond wig in a tight braid down her back. Dessi slammed the role, as always pumping out the exact notes in perfect control and poise, sweet color and effortless grace. And btw, although her natural brown hair suits her just fine, she looked smoking in platinum gold. I was all like damn. daayyum! When Des Grieux and Manon absconded, they did so in a Benz that was literally backed onto the stage. As two students (bearing the likeness of Manon and Des Grieux) reinacted the scene before Lescaut and Geronte, piles of money were emptied from a suitcase onto the body of a writhing Manon, swiftly changing the narrative of Manon from heroine to gold-digging slut. Carsen, like Puccini had been accused, cannot help pervade a tinge of mysogony that is unappealing and overt. Carsen falls into, once again, an underlying objectification of women, and the narrative turns from that of a courageous woman to one dependant on her man and his wealth.
Act II called for a costume and set change, and Manon appeared in a black silk chemise, surrounded by attendees and hang-ons, Mistress Barbie in full effect. Instead of window displays, they were in a luxury, minimalist penthouse apartment overlooking a not-Paris city center, with the only furniture appearing as large, flat couches dropped in the middle of the stage and a pile of cushions in the corner. Dessi's "L'ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella" was gorgeous and touching, but the overstuffed audience was all like yea ok MOAR.
When Geronte showed-off the hawtness of Manon to his friends, Carsen decided on staging a photoshoot, with four identical flappers in magenta bobbed wigs dancing behind her, awash in a sea of magenta light. um, what? And again, the whole rapz0rs scene at the end of the act was super lame. As Geronte's Matrix-Stormtroopers emptied Manon's packed suitcases, they spilled the booty of jewels and money all over the ground, which remained on stage throughout the rest of the evening.
Act III spun further out of control, arias sung while fondling jewels and a chorus dressed in evening ewar, culminating with a parade of Manon with a dozen other incarcerated prisons participating in an evening-wear fashion show, flash bulbs popping throughout the whole moronic scene in a seizure-inducing pattern. ok, Carsen, we get it. Capitalism, his favorite pet flogging boy, is again beaten like a dead horse. WE GET IT OK? The entire event distracted insanely from the excellent singing (and original libretto), and was embarrassingly ridiculous. The only thing that saved it was the meaty duets among Dessi and Armiliato, leaving OC almost breathless at the absolute harmony between teh two onstage-offstage lovers. Their chemistry was under perfect control and gauge, scope and credibility.
Act IV was the most ridiculous of all, the desert represented as the same covered mall from Act I (and II & III). How Dessi was able to act herself through that direction was a miracle, and props to her for putting on such a professional face. Her acting was so pristine, that it was almost too much for Carsen's perplexing direction, and came off as incongruent to the coldness of his sets. "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" from Dessi was off the hook, but again, she suffused so much emotion into the aria, while the scenery and direction was so careless and jibing.
The audience last night was cooly detacted and blase, barely breaking into applause after the most stellar duets and arias by Dessi. OC was somewhat incredulous, and thought back to the thunderous Adriana Lecouvreur that she saw last April at La Scala, where the loggioni flipped out -- and rightfully so -- after the supa-powa duo wonder twins Dessi & Armiliato rocked the Piermarini casbah. Last night, Armiliato and Dessi sang their big hearts away, and intertwined their techniques so flawlessly, but barely any shouts of brava peppered the audience. In fact, one of the only applauses inserted spontaneously into the opera last night was after the Act III intermezzo. HA! Also: Jeff Koons. His monstrosity of a curtain "Geisha" -- a cross between Basquiat & Murakami -- hanging over the stage comes from a larger body of work called "Hulk Elvis" (the big green monstah is in teh haus in all his horrorsome fearfulness). Enough for now...more on his curtain later.
Other thoughts? The Wiener Staatsoper is a gigantic arena, feeling more vacuous than The Metropolitan Opera house, and decorated less than a high school auditorium. wtf? Filled to the brim with grey old ladies and tourists (Americans in Vienna is at like saturation point this week, thanks to Columbus Day which must have insured enough vacation days for international travel), everyone was stuffed with too much knoedel and sacher torte to lift a hand for applause. The ghost of Puccini himself could have been conjured on the stage tonight, and the audience would have still sat back and farted. Applause was pitiful and not on the level that was deserved. At all. Yeah, the La Scala loggionisti are annoying and sometimes super lame and they may not always be in good faith, but I am thankful that they are a reliable barometer of talent, and was awakened to the mystique of Fabiela Dessabio, who are revered as sacred in their thorny hands.