You don't expect to find Christian Thielemann, guardian of alles that is deutsche, conducting Puccini. But Manon Lescaut is what he picked for his first new opera production since taking the Dresden reins, in the Stefan Herheim staging first seen in Graz.
His Wagnerian credentials were immediately validated in the Tristanesque Intermezzo, shifted from the third act to perform overture duties. Here Stefan Herheim introduced us to 'Puccini' - a silent actor - who creates Manon just as Des Grieux - here a sculptor - creates the Statue of Liberty. Monuments to freedom in feminine form, geddit? Created by men, beastly sexist men, who as Herheim reminds us with some nasty and borderline gratuitous prostitute-torture later on, seek to oppress and control women at every opportunity. Not that there isn't a profound truth lurking there, but I'm starting to find Herheim's feminist side, as previously revealed in his Lulu and Rusalka, a little too reminiscent of the censorious posturing of the Daily Mail on the subject of bikini-Kate.
Anyway, the sculptor's story is told in Puccini's era, and the Abbé Prévost's tale, simultaneously, in its own 18th century setting, an opportunity for some flamboyant powdering, wigging and bosom-enhancing. A giant Statue of Liberty and a chorus-packed gantry are ingeniously deployed to create everything from prison to a bed. There is no doubt about the craftsmanship of Herheim's production. His elegant and fluid switches make compelling sense of a problematic opera which in truth lurches from scene to scene like a series of ripped pages. Thielemann's supple control of the score only enhances the effect, all sweeping glamour and elegantly controlled corners. Herheim has complained about Thielemann's absence from stage rehearsals; all I can say is that music and staging had a seamless kinship.
The opera is not an easy one to cast, even for a house with Met-like resources, so in the less adequately endowed Semperoper a few shortcomings were anticipated. Unfortunately they turned out to be in the two principal roles. The Semperoper's own Christoph Pohl as Lescaut and Giorgio Berrugi as Edmondo could have graced any stage in the world, as could Maurizio Muraro, guesting as Geronte (as he will at Covent Garden: 'later').
But Norma Fantini's vibrato-thick vocals, matronly appearance and instinctively self-regarding stage persona lent little credibility to her Manon. Puccini wants us to sympathise with his hard done-by heroine; all I could do was wonder whether she likes to refer to herself in the third person singular or the first person plural. For her impressive volume and general musical accuracy she deserved the warm applause she received, but in every dramatic sense she's several years past it.
Her Des Grieux, Thiago Arancam, looks young enough to be her son, which of course didn't help. He produced a few ringing top notes, but his voice is basically undersized and his vocal production uneven. A lot just disappeared beneath the orchestra. He tried his best, and a few unkind boos at the end were not deserved - this was a casting mistake, not a shabby performance. It's a tough role which today perhaps only a Jonas Kaufmann could do justice - and what are the chances of luring him to the Semperoper?