Reviewer's Rating

Abbé Prévost’s Novel “Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut,” written back in 173,1 was an inspiration to many opera composers, including Jules Massenet and later Giacomo Puccini. After Massenet’s Manon was first performed at Opéra-Comique in 1884, he became one of the most celebrated opera composers overnight. What is it that fascinated so many composers about the resplendent world around Manon Lescaut? Dutch director Floris Visser returns to the Zurich Opera with a production full of poetic visual language, razor-sharp social criticism, all perfectly balanced with an immense extensiveness of sound from the orchestra pit and a stellar cast on stage.

Manon tells the story of a naive girl striving for fame and recognition who is even willing to leave her lover for better conditions in 18th century France. Many directors before portrayed Manon as silly and superficial. In Floris Visser’s version, however, there comes a completely new side of Manon to light. He describes her as someone willing to manipulate the society around her in order to become their centre of attention. She acts narcissistic and immoral and always finds a way to justify her actions. During the piece Manon makes an enormous psychological development, which is fantastically underlined by Visser’s visual language on stage. He moves the action around the time of the opera’s creation and pictures a total voyeuristic society with a certain class system, where everyone strives for extravagance in order to not be socially resented. During the overture, Manon as a kid carefully lifts up a glove she found on the floor, and as she puts it on, the walls of the sparse room move aside (phenomenal two-level stage construct by Dieuweke van Reij) and the little girl is surrounded by dancing couples under a magnificent chandelier. The direction team brilliantly includes the upper stage to show the always present social conventions, the characters desires and fears, all in a wonderful interaction with the spectacular lighting by Alex Brok.

Although not having such a lyric voice as many interpreters before her, the young soprano Elsa Dreisig is completely to suited the role of Manon, especially for this production. She astounded the audience with the many colours in her voice, and most importantly she portrayed the immense characteristic development of this main character. From lyric passages in the beginning to enormous emotional outbursts when the dramatic story takes its course, Dreisig delivers such a rich range of colours and emotions. To her side probably the best Des Grieux one could wish for at the moment. After an enormous success as Cavaradossi in Vienna, Piotr Beczala returns to the Zurich Opera with vocal conditions better than ever. His substantial and agile tenor conquered the hearts of the audience by storm. Yuriy Yurchuk played Manon’s imprudent cousin Lescaut, and Alastair Miles the elegant Comte des Grieux. Some true showstoppers were Éric Huchet and Marc Scoffoni as Guillot de Morfontaine and de Brétigny. The two Frenchmen entertained the audience with much humour, joy and stunning voices as well as Yuliia Zasimova and Natalia Tanasii (Pousette and Javotte) with crystal clear heights and Deniz Uzun with her rich, dark mezzosoprano and timbre which built a perfect base for the funny trio. Further soloists were Henri Bernard Guizirian (as sublime Sergeant), Cheyne Davidson (L’hotelier), and James McCorkle and Omer Kobiljak (Deux Gardes).

To the many roles came the Zurich Opera’s wonderful and playful house chorus (rehearsed by Ernst Raffelsberger) and a ballet group. The whole production was in the hands of Marco Armiliato, a conductor who has already given many great moments to Zurich’s audiences. He and the Philharmonia Zurich created rich sound and a wonderful balance between the big choir, the soloists and the orchestra. One could tell that Armiliato was very familiar with the house’s acoustics, which resulted in a very exciting and technical sublime interpretation. Massenet’s score has so much to offer and even after 3 ½ hours the music was able to excite the audience.

In the end Manon dies, and as this happens all the walls open up as if Manon was free from all the social conventions. It’s an evening full of emotions and wonderful poetic moments, which never become kitsch, a beautiful reminiscene of “La belle Époche.”