Outstanding Manon Lescaut

5 Jul

I  don’t know Manon Lescaut well: the performance that I saw at the ROH on 1st July was only my third and, not being a massive Puccini fan, it’s not one that I think I’ve ever listened to on CD.  It has always struck me as needing a lot of help. There are undoubtedly some great arias and marvellous duets but somehow it doesn’t have the same conciseness as Puccini’s later operas or the same momentum. I’m not the greatest fan of Massenet’s version of the story but it seems to me to create more interesting characters and situations than Puccini’s version and with some real conflict of the situation.  Above all it gives you a picture of the real relationship between Manon and Des Grieux.  This isn’t to say that it’s  a bad opera but that, if Puccini hadn’t written anything else, this would be rather like La Wally or Adriana Lecouvreur – an opera done now and then because of some good arias rather than because it’s a masterpiece.

This might explain why I was much more taken by Jonathan Kent’s production then most critics or, indeed, many in the audience. To a great extent I think this is due to the theatre. If it had been done at ENO it would have been hailed as a brilliant interpretation of the work. Here you felt that the audience was longing for frills and petticoats and an authentic 18th century setting. Kent sees the opera as being about the exploitation of women by men and updates it to the present day. The first act is set outside a seedy hotel, the second act is in a glorious faux rococco room where Manon is filmed for the benefit of an audience of dirty old men. The third act turns the exile of the prostitutes into a reality TV show and the last act is set at the end of an unfinished highway in the desert. If an audience just wants to look a pretty costumes and wallow in the music, this is a bit challenging.

It doesn’t wholly work. It’s hard to accept this tarty, sexually aware Manon of ever being likely to go near a convent. It wasn’t easy to follow exactly what relatonshhip the visual side of Act III had to the story of the opera. And sightlines from the side of the theatre were a major problem particularly in the last act, but also in Act I. Placing the action on the motorway as high as it was struck me as an act of pure designer arrogance.

On the other hand, I thought that the concept in the second act was absolutely brilliant and worked superbly; Act III looked compelling even if it didn’t completely work, while the final scene struck me as a superb metaphor for the place where those characters had reached. I liked the direction of the characters: Manon’s ambivalence, Des Grieux’s obsession and the sheer nastiness of Lescaut were beautifully caught. Simply as a staging and a piece of theatre, this was a slick, convincing, compelling piece of work that made you think about the characters and their situations.

Musically it was even better. Jonas Kaufmann was in wonderful form as Des Grieux. He caught the innocence and the obsession of the man and he was in simply fabulous voice. He makes it sound easy, believable – it’s a complete performance with the acting and the singing entirely at one with the stage.  He looks like the innocent, obsessed student who simply cannot bear to part with Manon (possibly the single most unbelievable thing about this opera).  It’s great that he seems to be coming once a year, but it really would be nice if the greatest tenor of our time could be booked a little more often.  He’s singing a lot of great Italian roles, but I’d love to hear his Lohengrin or Walther here.

He was matched by Kristina Opolais as Manon. This is a very lovely voice with a nice edge to it. I thought her acting of the part was fabulously good – mesmerisingly effective in her Anna Nicole costume and catching the sheer moral ambivalence – I thought that the way she really regretted leaving the money of Geronte was outstandingly done.  The duets for the two of them were, for me, the muscial highlights of this year so far.

Christopher Maltman made a seedy, well sung, thoroughly nasty Lescaut, Maurizio Muraro was a very convincing lecher of a Geronte and the smaller roles and chorus were excellent.

Antonio Pappano was in the pit for the second night running. He a superb accompanist of singers but he also paces the opera perfectlly, making a piece of drama out of it. I thought his accompaniement of the last duets and the playing of the final chords very moving indeed.

I don’t particularly expect to be moved in Manon Lescaut. I don’t particularly to expect to engage with it as drama. This great evening made me do both,  It was, in its way, the same sort of questioning, thoughtful approach that characterised the Ariadne the night before. I hope it comes back – with Kaufmann and Opalais too, please.



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