The Times, 18 Jun 2014
Richard Morrison
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
We don’t call ladies like Manon Lescaut “fallen women” any more, but there are plenty of modern-day Manons around. As Julie Burchill once observed: “Wherever there are rich men trying not to feel old, there will be young girls trying not to feel poor.”

That is surely Jonathan Kent’s view too. Bringing Puccini’s earliest hit to the Royal Opera stage for the first time in 30 years, he dumps the 18th-century context of Prevost’s novel, and the late 19th-century world of Puccini himself, in favour of a thoroughly contemporary interpretation.

Paul Brown’s ingenious set starts off as half a modern apartment block (albeit improbably fringed with fairy lights) and half the casino in which Maurizio Muraro’s gross, oligarch-like Geronte will take advice from Christopher Maltman’s superb, pimpish Lescaut on how to seduce Kristine Opolais’s opportunist Manon.

Not that she needs much seduction. By Act II the set has swivelled to reveal Manon, now a perv’s delight in a thigh-revealing Barbie doll outfit, knee-high socks and blonde wig, giving live webcam sex shows from Geronte’s mansion to an audience of leering, bald lechers. Later, Geronte’s olde-worlde madrigal is turned by Manon into a bit of girl-on-girl action.

Well, that’s one way of upstaging the supposed main attraction of this show: Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux. Kent’s exuberant directorial inventions don’t stop there. Manon’s trial and deportation is staged as a grotesque reality-TV court scene. There is one surreal moment when the entire lighting rig is lowered to become part of the action. And instead of the Louisiana desert, she and Des Grieux end up on that quintessential symbol of urban desolation: a buckled, derelict flyover.

Too many gimmicks? That might be the danger with a more mundane cast than the Royal Opera has assembled here. With Kaufmann and Opolais in such mesmerising form, however, there’s no chance that the sets will eclipse the lovers.

One can quibble about Kaufmann’s slightly muffled, un-Italianate consonants, or about Opolais not having quite enough welly in the lower register to cut through the orchestra — but not about the stream of glorious, lyrical tone that each produces, nor about the intensity and touching pathos in that harrowing last act as they clasp each other, alone, dying in despair, amid that twisted wasteland on an otherwise dark stage. Puccini declared that he composed Manon Lescaut “with a desperate passion”. That’s exactly what comes across here.

There is a third star, perhaps eclipsing those on stage. It is Antonio Pappano, who conducts this score as well as I have ever heard any Puccini conducted. From the fizzing opening, through to the magnificently tragic dying cadences of the Act III prelude and on to the bleak final scene, he and his brilliant ROH Orchestra pace and shape the music with a passion and understanding that is masterly. With tickets priced up to £250, you expect quality — but music-making like this is pure gold.

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