The Express, June 19, 2014
By: William Hartston
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
'Dodgy' production with magnificent singing
THE French morality tale is yanked into the modern day with misguided scenes of reality TV and the sex trade - thank goodness for the impeccable score and truly exciting singing

Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut has not been performed at Covent Garden for over 30 years and it is not difficult to see why. The plot is based on a novel by Antoine-Francois Prévost's which was not only quite a sensation in its day but had already had at least two other opera and a ballet based on it.

Puccini had every right to assume that anyone coming to see it would know the story and would be able to fill in the narrative gaps in his version. Instead of a connected storyline, we therefore see each scene as a snapshot in the life of Manon, from convent girl to lover to courtesan to ultimate degradation and death.

It is an old-fashioned morality tale, which may have been appropriate to audiences in the 1890s, but hardly fits today's tastes.

In this new production, Jonathan Kent, normally one of the most reliable and exciting directors of opera, tries to bring the story up to date, with the world of reality television and the sex industry taking the place of the allure of Parisian society and it just does not work.

At all too many moments, a clash between what one sees happening on stage and the words being sung just add to the confusion, and where the final scene is meant to be taking place is anyone's guess. The programme tells us it is the Californian desert, but it looks like a motorway flyover and the singers only tell us that it is dry and dusty.

The production, in short, is dodgy to say the least, but the singing and the music are magnificent.

With Kristine Opolais in the title role and Jonas Kaufman as her lover the Chevalier des Grieux, we are treated to two of the world's finest singers at the height of their powers not only giving magnificent performances but clearly raising each other to even greater heights than usual, Opolais is also perhaps the best looking of all of today's sopranos and is the perfect match for the matinée idol good looks of Kaufman.

They would look good under any circumstances, but when they are belting out Puccini's emotional music with such commitment and perfect delivery, the result is totally gripping.

And then there is Antonio Pappano, conducting the Covent Garden orchestra in an impeccable reading of the lush score. The music came from Puccini's early years (This was his first great operatic success) and is full of both youthful exuberance and clear indications of the talent that was later to give us such masterpieces as La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly.

While those works impress particularly by their emotionality, Manon Lescaut has a vitality that adds true excitement to the music.

At the end of the performance at the Royal Opera House, there was massive applause for Jonas Kaufman, still greater appreciation of Kristine Opolais, thunderous clapping and foot stamping for Antonio Pappano and the orchestra, and then a mixture of applause and some booing for the director.

It was unfair, as he was only trying to find a way to bring the story up-to-date and fill in the gaps left by Puccini's librettist, but I can see why the boo-ers felt as they did: it just didn't work.

So five stars for Kaufman, Opolaid and Pappano, three for Puccini and two for Jonathan Kent, which averages out at four.

 back top