26 Apr 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Massimo Giordano, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Lester Lynch, Bogdan Mihai

  • Giacomo Puccini
    Manon Lescaut: Part 1 (concert performance) (81 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (Musician), Massimo Giordano Tenor (Renato Des Grieux), Eva-Maria Westbroek Soprano (Manon Lescaut), Liang Li (Bass) Geronte de Ravoir, Lester Lynch Baritone (Lescaut), Reinhard Dorn Bass (Innkeeper, Naval Captain), Bogdan Mihai Tenor (Edmondo), Arthur Espiritu Tenor (Lamp Lighter), Krešimir Špicer Tenor (Dancing Master), Vienna Philharmonia Chorus, Johannes Kammler Bass (Sergeant of the Royal Archers), Walter Zeh Chorus Master

  • Giacomo Puccini
    Manon Lescaut: Part 2 (concert performance) (57 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (Musician), Massimo Giordano Tenor (Renato Des Grieux), Eva-Maria Westbroek Soprano (Manon Lescaut), Liang Li (Bass) Geronte de Ravoir, Lester Lynch Baritone (Lescaut), Reinhard Dorn Bass (Innkeeper, Naval Captain), Bogdan Mihai Tenor (Edmondo), Arthur Espiritu Tenor (Lamp Lighter), Krešimir Špicer Tenor (Dancing Master), Vienna Philharmonia Chorus, Johannes Kammler Bass (Sergeant of the Royal Archers), Walter Zeh Chorus Master

From naive innocence to femme fatale and outlaw – the fall from grace of the heroine of Abbé Prévost novel L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut is extreme. No wonder that the easygoing Manon Lescaut, who shifts constantly between true love and her lust for luxury, inflamed the imagination of opera composers. With the dramma lirico Manon Lescaut, the 35-year-old Giacomo Puccini made his artistic breakthrough in 1893. The work established him as one of the leading opera composers of his time – even although there was already the extremely successful Manon by the Frenchman Jules Massenet. But Puccini knew how to create a unique version, full of passion and drama, captivating melodies and seductive instrumental textures.

The role of Manon Lescaut is sung by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, a soloist held in high regard by the Berliner Philharmoniker: She has been engaged on several occasions to sing the role of Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre: both for the concert performances in 2005 and 2012, and for the staged operatic productions in Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg in 2007 and 2008. Each time, she impressed audiences with her expressive voice, in both lyrical and dramatic moments.

At her side as Des Grieux, Manon's great love, is the Naples-born Massimo Giordano, one of the leading bel canto tenors. Conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in this concert performance of the opera at the Philharmonie is chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who guided the ensemble through the score at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden just a few days before this performance.

“With desperate passion”

Puccini and Manon Lescaut

Giacomo Puccini embarked on an opera career with two disappointments. Le Villi (The Willis), which began life as a one-acter, enjoyed only a modest, short-lived success. Then, after painfully slow gestation, Edgar, a dramma lirico after Alfred de Musset, was also coolly received. The unequivocal breakthrough came with his third effort, although its genesis, too, was accompanied by unusual complications and obstacles. This time Puccini’s persistence paid off: on 1 February 1893 at Turin’s Teatro Regio, he celebrated what was perhaps the most triumphant premiere of his life. Indeed, that Carnival season witnessed two historic events in the motherland of melodramma. In Turin, Puccini launched an international career with the heart-rendingly sad Manon Lescaut. Eight days later at La Scala, the aged Verdi spoke his droll last words on matters theatrical in Falstaff, concluding his commedia lirica with the pronouncement that this whole world is no more than a “burla” – a bewildering jest. One might add that the works of both maestri – the up-and-coming and the soon departing – were typically preoccupied with sorrow and death.

The Milan publishing house of Ricordi could normally count on raking in profits with an established master and national idol like Verdi, whereas commissioning a new opera from Puccini was not without its risks. But once again Giulio Ricordi combined business savvy and a prognostic instinct for new artists, neither stinting on encouragement nor on financial resources to lend a perceived genius a helping hand. He began by sending Puccini on his first visit to the Bayreuth Festival in summer 1889. Returning home from the “Green Hill” with boosted self-confidence and enriched by encounters with Wagner’s music, Puccini was already occupied with a new opera project. What he had set his heart on, however, was not at all what his publisher had in mind: L’Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the once popular novel the French writer Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles, known as the Abbé Prévost. It is the cautionary tale of the decline and fall of an irresistibly charming young woman. Puccini had recognized since Bayreuth, if not before, that he wasn’t born to grapple with larger-than-life gods and heroes. “I have a feeling for the little things,” he modestly admitted, “but I treat them with love. That’s why Manon appealed to me, because she’s a girl with a heart and nothing more.”

A few years earlier in Paris, Jules Massenet had brought out his Manon and quickly conquered the stages of Europe with it. Ricordi had reservations about his protégé entering into competition, but Puccini had found his “subject” and would not be dissuaded. “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her?”, he countered his publisher. “A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.” In fact, there had already been at least two compositional lovers: Daniel François-Esprit Auber had also devoted an opera to this adulated object of male obsession. “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets,” Puccini parried. “I feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion.” Fatalistically, he set himself an ultimatum: “If this opera isn’t a success, I’ll look for another occupation.”

Determined to succeed, Puccini set about finding collaborators prepared to fashion a suitable libretto from the multifaceted and psychologically astute Abbé Prevost’s 1731 source. Massenet’s librettists Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille had provided an impressively cogent model, but Puccini needed to avoid an overabundance of similarities and, in particular, circumvent any suspicion of plagiarism. His first choice was Ruggero Leoncavallo, friendly rival, colleague and intermittent neighbour in the Swiss mountain village of Vacallo. Leoncavallo didn’t hold out long against Puccini’s demands, but before long he had pipped him to the post with a successful opera of his own – Pagliacci. Manon Lescaut’s subsequent co-librettists included the playwright Marco Praga and poet Domenico Oliva, finally the writing team of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica who would later collaborate with Puccini on La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. The publisher Giulio Ricordi, who Puccini jokingly called his “best librettist”, also contributed to the text. Even the composer himself had a hand in it, and he also cannibalized some of his earlier music for the new opera, including the Messa di Gloria, a song, a couple of pieces for strings and the string quartet Crisantemi. By the end, he proclaimed “the libretto is by all and none”. On the title page of the score, published by Ricordi, only his own name appears. The work had taken over two years to complete, continually plagued by difficulties in finding new music for each new instalment of text or, conversely, adapting music already composed to newly delivered words. The result was a patchwork that afterwards gave the impression of being all of a piece.

Ultimately Puccini’s Italian counterpart bore little resemblance to Massenet’s Manon, which served publisher Ricordi well. The same could also be said, however, of its correspondence to the literary source, Abbé Prevost’s masterpiece. But a composer’s resources are different from a storyteller’s. It would be impossible for any setting of Manon to capture the literary model’s complexity in a musical score. On the other hand, the music has something more and different to say about the subject than the narrative. Surely Puccini could have learned from Wagner in Bayreuth how one proceeded in developing an unbroken, quasi-forensic argument to connect the action’s motifs causally with one another. But, he must have said to himself, an Italian composer working in the genre of melodramma hasn’t any need of that. Opera overwhelms through the immediacy of the musical here-and-now and has to depend on attacking the emotions – therein lies its omnipotence, as inexplicable as that of Eros. Wagner the musician would have agreed with him. But Puccini hadn’t Wagner’s command of incontrovertible rhetoric, nor did he set much store by it. As picky as he was in his search for an operatic subject, and as assiduous in the polishing of a libretto’s wording, he regarded the text as conceptual support in conveying the action, which primarily, however, derives its thrust from music, especially singing.

And so there is method in the contrasts drawn between Manon Lescaut’s four acts. On the one hand, there is the backdrop of an artificial, self-contained world: with the light-hearted student song at the beginning, with Geronte’s waxen habitat and its stilted madrigals, minuets and pastorals. Then, in the foreground, there are the menacing outbreaks of unregulated passion, which eruptively assert their claim to dominance. The pain of separation has marked the protagonist Des Grieux of the second act, as he pleads with Manon in deadly earnest and increasingly in the admonishing minor. Their love duet is almost like a Mediterranean reflection of the dialogue from the second act of Wagner’s Tristan. The love story on stage can tacitly accept the dramaturgical gaps because the beseeching gestures of the music ensure continuity and the consistency of all actions. The logically “imperfect” perfection of Manon Lescaut exerts its allure most strongly when the radiance of singing is uppermost.

Karl Dietrich Gräwe

Translation: Richard Evidon

Massimo Giordano graduated in flute and vocal studies from the Conservatorio Tartini in Trieste. In 1997, the tenor won the “Adriano Belli” singing competition in Spoleto, after which he appeared in the title role of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito at the Teatro Caio Melisso. In the same year, he sang Alfredo (La traviata) only at the dress rehearsal due to an earthquake which severely damaged the Teatro Nuovo “Gian Carlo Menotti” in Spoleto. At the Teatro Verdi in Trieste, the former choir singer finally made his breakthrough in the role of Ernesto (Don Pasquale). After his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2000 in a Verdi Gala conducted by Claudio Abbado, Massimo Giordano continued his work with the orchestra the following year with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, also conducted by Claudio Abbado, at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Guest appearances then took the singer, whose repertoire includes the title roles of Verdi’s Don Carlo and Massenet’s Werther , Cavaradossi (Tosca), Rodolfo (La Bohème), Fenton (Falstaff), Don José (Carmen) and Chevalier Des Grieux (Manon Lescaut), to the world’s major opera houses (the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Bavarian State Opera, Opéra National de Paris, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden). Massimo Giordano has worked with Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, Elīna Garanča, Susan Graham and Natalie Dessay under the direction of conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Antonio Pappano, Michel Plasson, Yuri Temirkanov, Vladimir Fedosseyev, Gianluigi Gelmetti Fabio Luisi and Vladimir Jurowski.

Liang Li studied singing at the conservatories in Tianjin and Beijing. He has won international competitions such as the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, the International Singing Competition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Neue Stimmen (“New Voices”) and the Shizuoka International Opera Competition in Japan. Since his debut at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples as Fasolt (Das Rheingold) in 1998, Liang Li has been a much sought after opera and concert singer all over the world. Since the 2006/07 season, the Chinese singer has been an ensemble member of the Staatsoper Stuttgart, where he sings the great roles of the bass repertoire: Daland (The Flying Dutchman), Ramfis (Aida), Gremin (Eugene Onegin), Raimondo (Lucia di Lammermoor), Timur (Turandot), Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte), Commendatore (Don Giovanni), Fasolt and Fafner (Das Rheingold) and Rodolfo (La Sonnambula). In 2012, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, Liang Li made his debut at the Palau de les Arts in Valencia as Ferrando (Il trovatore), and as King Marke (Tristan and Isolde). In the 2012/13 season, his guest appearances included as Gurnemanz (Parsifal) at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and as Cardinal de Brogni (La Juive) at the Semperoper in Dresden. In the same season, he celebrated a great success at the side of Placido Domingo as Zaccaria in a new production of Verdi’s opera Nabucco at the Opera Festival in Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. As a concert singer, Liang Li is a regular guest with major orchestras and at renowned festivals in Europe and Asia. His extensive concert repertoire includes, among others, the Requiems of Mozart and Verdi, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis, Haydn’s oratorio The Creation , and Rossini’s and Dvořák’s Stabat Mater. This will be Liang Li’s first appearance in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Lester Lynch, a graduate of the Julliard Opera School, has made an name for himself internationally with his nuance-rich voice. Highlights of the baritone’s career so far include appearances as Porgy (Porgy and Bess) at Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as Germont (La traviata) at Houston Grand Opera, as Sharpless (Madama Butterfly) at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and as Marcello (La Bohème) at New York City Opera. He has also appeared in a variety of roles at Santa Fe Opera, Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Seattle Opera and in productions of the Canadian Opera Company. He took on the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto in Toronto and the role of Carlo Gérard in Giordano’s André Chénier at the Bregenz Festival. Under the auspices of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, Lester Lynch regularly gives recitals, in which he has also given the premiere of Six Songs on Poems by Raymond Carver by Lowell Lieberman, which were commissioned for him. As a concert soloist, he has worked with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Lester Lynch made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2012 in three concert performances of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. His last appearance with the orchestra was in October 2013 in Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, also conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.


© 2014 EuroArts Music International

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