The Arts Desk, 18 June 2014
by David Nice
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera
Vibrant, peerless singers and conductor sapped by invertebrate monster production
Puccini’s racy first masterpiece, like its successor La bohème, should feel like an opera of two halves – the first full of youthful exuberance, the second darker and ultimately tragic. The contrast here, alas, was between vivacious performers and a sombre, sometimes confused updating by Jonathan Kent which too often dwarfed or zapped their better efforts.

On the minus side, any contemporary rendering of a slight-ish melodrama adapted from Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel goes against the grain of the depicted attempts to send our pleasure-loving young heroine first into a convent and then, for prostitution, into exile, though I suppose Eastern European trafficking could work. A plus might be pithier correspondences of this sad tale about a girl destroyed by consumerism with Turnage’s Anna Nicole, due to make a welcome return to the Royal Opera next season (and the irony of sponsorship here by Rolex, the ultimate purveyor of must-have-but-don't-need luxury, isn't lost). In the hands of that effective show’s director, Richard Jones, this modern-dress take could have worked better. Unfortunately Kent and his designer, Paul Brown, whose elaborate spinning sarcophagus for Don Giovanni and polystylistic Rameau just about came off on the smaller stage at Glyndebourne, give little sense of place or stage topography.

Why the small modern flats or hotel rooms above the casino of Act One (the meeting of Manon and Des Grieux pictured right), not to mention the wobbly lamp-post, or the lighting rig that descends in Act Three, with some unclear link to the filming before an invited audience of the sex-workers’ shipping off across the Atlantic - an action feebly represented by a rip through a giant fashion poster? The idea of Manon’s capitulation to sleazy banker Geronte’s mansion, where she’s asked to participate in another media event, a sex show for his dirty old men friends, is clearer, but manages to make even the gorgeous Kristine Opolais grotesque in an ageing China Blue wig, pink fluffy dress and high schoolgirl socks (pictured below straddling Maurizio Moraro's Geronte) – maybe part of the point, but while it’s good not to have the clichés of wink-wink rococo powder and paint, this overlards the woman-as-object theme: Geronte surely wants to keep the girl glamorous and for himself alone.

It most goes against the grain that the dramatic intelligence of Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann is used to render their passionate young lovers very often as depressed blank slates, starting with a sombre stage picture to contradict the brilliant prelude and especially hard on traumatised Manon. Puccini’s music, especially in the focused vitality of Pappano and a Royal Opera orchestra on superb form yet again, never stays still and, in its youthful impetuousness, rarely gives time for the kind of inscaping which might have worked in a straight play. Vocally, this usually brilliant pair sometimes sounds a bit lost in various spots around the gigantic set, though both singers are absolutely up to the considerable demands of their taxing roles.

Kaufmann starts, as usual, with darker tone than we might expect from a sunshine-and-roses Italian tenor – his lighter confrere Edmondo, more than promisingly sung by Benjamin Hulett, is better suited to the studentish pranks of the first scene – and then gets into gear, but with rather too many Italianate sobs between phrases. Though one size lighter than a Del Monaco or a Corelli, he still pulls the stops out for Des Grieux’s increasing despair, and ignites the climactic third act.

Opolais has fewer opportunities for the vocal colour and inflection she does so well, and the very top of the voice doesn’t always bloom as I’ve heard it, but she is absolutely Kaufmann’s and Pappano’s equal in the love-hungry thrust of the big Act Two duet, and nails, Scotto-like, all but the very last phrase of the big solo alone, lost and abandoned midway up the stage on the desert highway (pictured below right). How good it is, too, to believe instantly when the chorus sing about a "beautiful young girl" or Lescaut of a "handsome young man". And both are stage naturals on whom all eyes are fixed.

Even the baritone in this opera is very much a second fiddle, though Christopher Maltman puts plenty of energy into Manon’s medallion-man brother, and there’s an admirably understated, vocally disciplined Geronte from Maurizio Muraro. The only weak turn among the bit parts is Jette Parker Young Artist Nadezhda Karyazina, her too-fast vibrato working against the neoclassical line as a musician required to fondle and be fondled by Manon in a kind of titillating lesbian scene for the elderly.

Come the curtain-call, there were enthusiastic cheers for the golden central couple, which seems fair – hard as it may have been to care much for Manon’s pointless death less than a week after witnessing the meaningful grace that descends on Poulenc’s Carmelites - and for Pappano, no qualification needed, but some fierce booing for Kent and his team. Certainly the show doesn’t merit that, but it’s no great addition to the Royal Opera repertoire either. Close-ups in the livescreening should help to pull it all more into focus.

 back top