Above: Opera Barcelona’s production of Manon. Credit: David Ruano.
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The Opera of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, brings two exceptional productions to the 2023 Opera Series. First up is Massenet’s Manon, under the baton of Marc Minkowski. Performed in May, 2023, this fresh production features Amina Edris, Pene Pati, Albert Casals, and more. Then, we stay to hear Monteverdi’s last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea led by none other than Jordi Savall, with members of Le Concert des Nations and the Gran Teatre del Liceu Orchestra. David Hansen stars as Nero, with Julie Fuchs as the empress-to-be Poppea, alongside a long cast of exceptional singers.
When Abbé Antoine-François Prévost wrote L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut in 1731, he little imagined it would provide inspiration for operatic composers. Yet for Auber, Massenet, Puccini and others it did. Jules Massenet‘s score for Manon portrays the French Regency period which saw the twilight of an old world unable to move forward and the apparent birth of a new world offering plentiful promises of freedom. Manon is a complex character, torn between the two. She avoids being sent to a convent and embarks on a life of lasciviousness and wrongdoing. Her personal leap into the void is her passionate but self-destructive love affair with Des Grieux, a brief but delightful parenthesis which comes to a tragic end.
Stage director Olivier Py, in his much-lauded production for the Grand Théâtre de Genève, eludes the historical trap of 18th-century libertinage to create associations with memorable but vulgar scenes in sordid, commonplace brothels. One of his images is unforgettable: that of Des Grieux finding Manon in a state of prostration but adorning herself with jewels which can do nothing to restore happiness or meaning to her life.
The opera Massenet drew from Prévost’s novel was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1884. Touched by the entrancingly spontaneous music, the audience were able to overlook the protagonists’ amoral and tortuous existence. Manon, who yearns above all for luxury and comfort, lapses into betrayal and prostitution and is sentenced to be deported to Louisiana. Her death in the arms of the powerless and remorseful Des Grieux carries a sobering message. From a misogynistic viewpoint, Manon’s strength and ability to embody wrongdoing and moral ruin have made her a literary myth on a par with the likes of Cleopatra, Eve, Salome, Carmen or Lulu.
Monteverdi has been called the “Oracle of Music” and his Poppea, though 380 years old, has surprisingly modern traits, with a depth and passion reminiscent of our own times. The music brilliantly captures Nero’s tyrannical hysteria and Poppea’s irresistible sensuality. Both words and music are used to achieve superb dramatic effects in a dazzling combination of comedy and tragedy.
This production by Calixto Bieito was first seen at the Opernhaus Zürich in 2018 and has been one of the most successful shows of recent seasons. Acclaimed by both audience and reviewers, it owes part of its magic to Rebecca Ringst, whose set design brings the audience closer to the stage than ever before. The obsessive, supremely vain characters inhabit a glamorous world of infinite self-praise and self-indulgence, which is reflected in the video screens that dominate the stage.
Julie Fuchs brings us a new, sensuous interpretation of Poppea. Neither setbacks nor defeats will stop her carrying out her plan to metamorphose from an ambitious courtesan into a crowned empress. This will be her leap into the void. Alongside her, countertenor David Hansen will give us an equally enjoyable rendering of Nero, who is so enslaved by Poppea’s beauty and words that he willingly orders Seneca to commit suicide after the latter has incurred her displeasure. Her unscrupulous battle against Nero’s wife Octavia (sung by Magdalena Kožená) and Ottone (Xavier Sabata) also ends in their banishment.
Jordi Savall, an unrivalled connoisseur of this repertory, will be on the podium to offer us a score which was believed lost for centuries until rediscovered in 1888. Ingredients such as eroticism, ambition and the fascination of power make this a modern opera. It culminates in the exquisitely melodious duet attributed to Benedetto Ferrari: “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (I gaze at you, I delight in you.)
About the Host
Lisa Flynn has been a program host and producer for WFMT since 1991. She presents The New Releases and has hosted many programs for the WFMT Radio Network, including War Letters (which won the 2002 Peter Lisagor Award) and a series of live broadcasts from Salzburg to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday in 2006. As WFMT’s midday weekday announcer, Lisa hosts live studio performances and interviews guest artists including Renée Fleming, John Adams, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, John Eliot Gardiner, and many others. Before coming to Chicago, Lisa presented classical music at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, and at WMFE and WUCF in Orlando, Florida. She holds a music degree from the University of Central Florida.
This program is a part of the WFMT Radio Network Opera Series, a series designed to complement the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts to fill out the year with great Opera content. The series begins in May and lasts until November.