Manon Lescaut - Jules Massenet - Stavros Niarchos Foundation - Athens Greece
At a time of real austerity the Stavros Niarchos Foundation have contributed over €500m to a brand new cultural centre, which includes a 1,400 seater Greek National Opera auditorium, as well as 210,000 square metres of national park. The cultural centre was completed and donated to the Greek state in 2017 and now stands as a beacon to the metropolitan cultural heritage of Greece and a global architectural landmark.
One of the very few operas that have to date graced the stage of the new auditorium is Manon, the opera by Jules Massenet that opened in Paris in 1884. The story of Manon Lescaut, written in the mid-18th century by Abbe Prevost, is based on the charm and vitality of the music and culture of Parisian Belle Epoque. Halevy and Auber composed works under the same gendre prior to Massenet, but it wasn’t until almost 10 years after the premiere of Manon that Puccini also wrote an opera on the subject, Manon Lescaut, which was premiered in Turin. Both of these operas have endured and maintained an important place in the operatic repertoire over the last 100 years or so.
The Yugoslavian Director, Thomas Moschopoulos, who has been the Director of the Porta Theatre in Athens for the last 5 years, directed a modern, but visually attractive production. The curtain rose on an airport luggage conveyor belt, with many different scenes within scenes in the backdrop, mostly depicting the elegance of Paris with Dior and Chanel at the core. This theme continued in Act 3, with the Paris catwalk and beautiful costumes. Perhaps it was only somewhat spoilt by the fetish scene in Act 4, which under the circumstances seemed somewhat out of place. The luggage conveyor belt returned for Act 5. On Manon’s death it moved her body away to the back of the stage. Somewhat bizarre!
However, the overall attraction of the production was a pleasant surprise and despite its modern theme was not out of keeping with the opera’s content and score. The outstanding costumes were designed by the British born Greek resident Clare Bracewell and the sets were designed by Evaggelia Therianou.
Some positive singing added to the evening’s entertainment. All the talent was home grown, apart from the Chevalier des Grieux of the Romanian tenor, Ioan Hotea. This young tenor has a fairly small thin voice, but possesses a nice Italianate ring and produced some considerable ardency, particularly during his Act 3 Church scene tenor aria and duet with Manon.
His Manon was the Greek soprano, Myrto Papatanasiu, who has a good career in Europe and deservedly so. She is slight and bubbly of vision with wonderful light/dark shades to her vocal output and a pure top. The Count des Grieux, sung by Tassos Apostolou, was an authoritative bass voice and menacing in appearance, although slightly thin in his upper register.
The Lescaut of the baritone, Dionysios Sourbis, was a voice of quality and real substance throughout the night. The rest of the roles were well sung. However, it would help if all the singers had received more quality training in their French pronunciation.
The evening’s musical proceedings were controlled by the former Music Director of the Greek National Opera, Lukas Karytinos. He has worked in many European cities, but his was a performance that lacked subtlety and his interpretation was at times somewhat ponderous. The small chorus who sang well were at times left slightly bemused at the pace of events.
At a time when a lot of cultural ideas are being postponed – particularly in the United Kingdom - Greece has delivered on the largest cultural/educational project ever undertaken in their country. To be able to listen to the glory of Massenet’s music in a new bordello coloured auditorium was indeed a real treat.