CULTURE

‘Manon Lescaut’ gets a makeover in Giancarlo del Monaco’s GNO production

Mario del Monaco is considered to have been one of the finest tenors of the 20th century, which perhaps explains why his son, Giancarlo del Monaco, decided early on to move to Germany, where he embarked on his career as a stage director, free of his father?s shadow. The young del Monaco started out as assistant to Wieland Wagner and Walter Felsenstein, before moving up in the operatic world to become principal stage director at the Ulm Opera (1970-3), general manager of the Macerata Festival in Italy (1986-8), general manager of the Oper der Bundesstadt Bonn (1992-7) and general director of the Opera de Nice (1997-2001). He has been the artistic director of the Tenerife Opera Festival since 2009.

A charming 64-year-old with a noteworthy career at some of the world?s most prominent theaters, del Monaco has been residing in Athens for the past few weeks due to his collaboration with the Greek National Opera, where he?s directing the company?s curtain raiser for the season, ?Manon Lescaut.? Billed as Giacomo Puccini?s first foray into the school of Italian ?verismo,? the opera is based on a novel by Abbe Prevost and follows the love story between the young Chevalier des Grieux and the beautiful Manon Lescaut. According to backstage GNO sources, the production is expected to cause something of a stir.

?The keyword in this case is imagination,? said del Monaco, without missing a beat. ?Manon Lescaut is no longer living in the 18th century but in the 1950s instead, where I present her as a kind of Lolita. That means that everything changes, including her feelings, the way in which she experiences her emotions is different: She comes across as more liberated.?

Cinema plays a major role in the National Opera production as the medium blossomed in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, del Monaco transfers the action to a movie studio while giving the opera a cinematic spin. And that?s not the whole story.

?The other keywords are love and death. I?m presenting Manon?s love in a rather liberal manner,? said del Monaco. ?Audiences should be prepared.?

As the discussion moves along, one wonders why a director boasting such a resume would come to work in Greece at a time when the country seems to be entering its toughest winter season in decades.

?I agreed to work in Greece during this period because I?m an idealist, I have a passion for Greek history. I have traveled extensively around the country, I?ve been to Delphi and the island of Rhodes,? said del Monaco. ?In my experience there is no such thing as first- and second-class theater. I have seen awful productions at internationally acclaimed theaters and gems on totally unknown stages. The only thing that matters is having the right appetite and talent. I?m overjoyed to be in Greece at this point in time. There is no such thing as Europe without Greece. This is why I value what I?m doing here this year so much.?

Unavoidably, del Monaco?s relationship with Greece has been filtered through his father?s close collaborations with Maria Callas and Dimitri Mitropoulos.

?When it comes to Callas, the love-death diptych is valid in a most dramatic way,? said the director. ?She fell in love with the wrong people, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini and [Luchino] Visconti, both of whom were homosexuals. She tried to revisit her roots through [Aristotle] Onassis, but again, this was the wrong relationship for her. The real Callas is Maria Meneghini-Callas. Maria Callas is a legend, while Maria Meneghini-Callas is a great artist. In fact, when they split up, Meneghini ordered his staff not to lay a hand on her belongings and leave everything the way she left it,? said the director. At the same time, he added, ?Mitropoulos worked on his most important productions together with my father, who happened to be his favorite interpreter.?

The director?s Greek journey will not end with ?Manon Lescaut.?

?I would like to visit Marathon, Salamina, Thermopylae,? said del Monaco. ?It?s an integral part of my job.?

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?Manon Lescaut? opens at the Greek National Opera?s Olympia Theater (59-61 Academias, tel 210.366.2100) on Sunday, with additional performances on October 24, 26 and 28 and November 7, 9, 11, 14 and 18. For more information, visit www.nationalopera.gr.