Similar to your staging of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi here in 2012, this production of Manon isn’t situated in a specific period in time—certainly not the 1721 setting that composer Jules Massenet had in mind. Why?
As a director, I try to create bridges between periods of time to make the story seem more immediate. I am led by the quality of the music and the singing. So we’re playing here with the idea that the opera’s characters aren’t stuck in an actual historical context. We’re trying to build bridges between the time of the story (the beginning of the 18th century) and the time of Massenet (1884) and now. I’m trying to give the character of Manon a chance to be imagined and received by the audience as if she could also be a lady of today.
It’s not because of her time that Manon behaves the way that she does; she should appear without any filter. Certainly, we can’t forget where she’s originally coming from and the time of the composer. That’s why I’m trying to mix up these three different dimensions and periods.
Who is Manon?
She’s a character that we find in any society and time. She is young, struggling for life, a lady full of desires and passions—and she’s totally frustrated and punished because of that from the beginning. People have told her, “Don’t dream, don’t be the one who enjoys pleasure.” And then she discovers very quickly what kind of power she can have over men. For sure, it’s a double game of manipulation, because men think of women as objects. She’s a victim of it. At the beginning, she’s the prey and then the prey becomes the predator.
Her problem will be that she can’t ever stop. Once she has something, she wants something more. Her passion has no limits. This is what makes the character extremely fascinating. I have no sympathy for the way she is behaving, but I’m fascinated and want to know more about her and her processes.
Does Manon really love Des Grieux?
As far as she can love a man, yes. She is deeply touched by the quality of his love and the way he offers himself. At the end of the second act, she says, “I love him. But…” She has no choice: she knows they’re Des Grieux will be captured anyway.
How is Manon different from Violetta in La Traviata?
For sure, these two characters are, in a way, sisters. But Violetta wants to invent a new life towards redemption. Manon is running and running, always for more. Until the end, she remains naïve. She can find her way out of any mess; she has instinct and the right intuition for tricky situations. But she’s not planning anything. Never. She’s always surprised by herself and extraordinarily aware of who she is, which makes her character very complex.
How do you walk the line between tragedy and lightness? The music of Manon has such a champagne-like buoyancy.
Absolutely. This is what makes the piece fantastic. But what’s even more interesting is that the lightness is often covering some kind of tragic aspect—or something dangerous. The lightness comes not only just to have fun. The style is very French and elegant, and there are lots of quotations of French Baroque music, but it’s always like a mask.