Werther Manon Lescaut.
Serban set the Massenet in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The stage was filled with appropriate props and furnishings, from tasselled patio furniture to a period living room, complete with TV set and decorated Christmas tree. Charlotte's bouffant-haired girlfriends were outfitted in below-the-knee party dresses with crinolines.
While there were some interpretive touches--particularly involving the relationship between Charlotte and Albert--this Werther was, for the most part, simply a production transplanted in time and place. As with many such updatings, the motivating factor appeared to be a misguided belief that a temporal change (and, therefore, a change of iconography) automatically makes the work more relevant for contemporary audiences. Whether or not it adds to the theatrical experience or a greater understanding of the work appears to be irrelevant. In Serban's production, he could easily have achieved what he wanted by leaving the opera in its original setting.
Fortunately the production--conducted masterfully by Philippe Jordan--boasted a stellar cast, with the darkly handsome Argentinean tenor, Marcello Alvarez, a knockout as Werther, and the luminous young Latvian mezzo-soprano, Elena Garanca, as an equally outstanding Charlotte.
Carsen was given the more difficult assignment. Manon Lescaut is a problematic work that survives more for the youthful vigor of the score than for the quality of the libretto. The principal characters, particularly Manon, are cardboard cutouts, which means any sense of tragedy is undermined.
While Carsen's vision of the opera may have been far from complete, it was certainly thought-provoking. Here was a Manon for our age: a "material girl" of modest means who has been seduced, consumed and destroyed by a superficial, meaningless society. All that matters is image: youth, beauty, power, sex and money. Given this context of social commentary, Manon's death scene took on a true sense of tragedy often found wanting in more traditional stagings of the opera.
Even the character of Geronte acquired a new dimension. He is often portrayed simply as a foolish, wealthy old lecher, but in Carsen's hands he became flesh and blood: a powerful business tycoon or Mafia mogul surrounded by a menacing bodyguard of men in black suits and dark glasses.
The versatile, single-unit set effectively underscored the director's intent, from a wide, curved boulevard of haute-couture shops to an elegantly sterile condominium with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a cold, faceless metropolis.
Brooklyn-born tenor Neil Shicoff turned 56 a few weeks before this performance. He sang and acted with his customary 120 percent, but his voice has lost some of its natural beauty and lustre, although his top is still secure and has a brilliant ring to it. Although Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman was often overextended by the vocal demands of the title role, she clearly seemed to revel in portraying it.
Conductor Seiji Ozawa, the Vienna State Opera's music director, was in the pit. While there was an urgency and rhythmic thrust to his performance, he was often quite willful, allowing his orchestra to unleash torrents of sound that drowned out the singers. The famous orchestral Intermezzo was positively Germanic in its drive and intensity, thus losing all of its haunting, Italianate beauty.