VIENNA, Austria (AP) — There is a moment in the third act of Massenet’s Manon when the heroine is hoisted on the shoulders of her admirers as the unrivaled beauty of Paris. In the current version at the Vienna State Opera, that is totally Diana Damrau’s moment
Anna Netrebko premiered this production nearly three years ago. She was wonderful. Beyond that, the Russian diva can do little wrong as THE love of the opera public, so any other singer clearly thinks twice before taking on the role — or should.
But when the German star was lifted above the stage Thursday, her radiant smile said it all. She was Manon, bar none, no matter who came before — or who is to come after.
The role is edgy both vocally and dramatically. A young girl headed for the convent elopes instead impulsively with a young nobleman she meets at the Paris train station — then leaves him for the fast lane in the French metropolis only to reclaim him, lead him into sin and shame and finally die in his arms, redeemed by love.
A wide range is clearly called for. The singer must be able to move from conveying the coquettish innocence of Manon at sweet 16 to portraying a hardened pleasure chaser and then finally a creature who expires broken — but happy and reconciled with her fate.
This is Damrau’s first Manon, but you wouldn’t know it.
Her voice was pure, controlled — with plenty of reserve, seemingly no limit in the upper ranges and an effortless coloratura that made it all sound so easy — notably in the famous Gavotte that calls for hitting notes sandwiching high C. And her “Adieu notre petit table” reflected perfect mastery of the changing dynamics, tempi and moods called for in a rendering of this aria.
But Damrau’s voice is seldom lacking. Her dramatic mastery was equally impressive.
Massenet himself described his works as “quick … compact and nervous” — adjectives that reflect this quick moving opera — and Damrau moves quickly with it. Still, her best dramatic moments come in the final three acts, as she morphs from the darling of Paris into a jaded bar queen before sliding into her final moments of redemption.
Netrebko as Manon, wonderful, yes, no doubt. But Damrau herself seems unfazed by the operatic shoes she has to fill here.
“I have to work with my possibilities, with my body, with my voice,” she told the AP shortly before Thursday’s performance. “Anna and I are two completely different people and two different instruments, and I simply have to do things my way.”
Her way Thursday was pure Damrau and pure pleasure — along with other fine performances, notably by Ramon Vargas as Des Grieux, her love; Dan Paul Dumitrescu as his father; Markus Eiche as Lescault, her cousin, and Alexander Kaimbacher as the dissolute Guillot. Also worth mention were Sophie Marilley, Zoryana Kushpler and Simina Ivan as the comically grim easy women populating this performance — in this version, moved from the 19th century into the Paris of the 1930s.
Arguments against this work have ranged from a thin plot to uninspired music outside of the three of four arias that always get requisite applause. At more than three hours, including a break, such weaknesses could translate into yawns in weaker productions.
But conductor Bertrand de Billy and the Vienna State Opera orchestra produced music that was bright, tender or muscular, admirably complementing and blending with the voices and action on stage.
Back in 2007, when this production premiered, one Italian critic expressed widely shared sentiments in asking: “What will happen when the (Vienna) State Opera introduces a Manon without Netrebko into the repertory?”
To all those who worried back then, rest assured.
Damrau (also) owns Manon.