The Telegraph, 18 Jun 2014
By Rupert Christiansen
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, review: 'soulless production'
There are few things in opera more depressing than watching great singers struggling in the face of an obstructive and pretentious production. Yet alas that is the case with the Royal Opera’s first presentation of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut for more than 30 years.

Jonathan Kent’s concept may sound acceptable in outline: predictably, it opts for a contemporary setting in which wide-eyed Manon arrives – from eastern Europe? – with her pimp of a brother at a sleazy casino and becomes the fluffy mistress of a banker. He forces her into soft porn (accompanied by the Act 2 pastorale) and then kicks her into sex-traffic hell when he discovers her two-timing.

The final two acts take place in a dystopian nightmare which shows Manon and the other fallen women parading past a showbizzy MC and then bundled out through a giant advertising hoarding on to what looks like a motorway flyover shattered by an earthquake.

But leaving aside the deliberate hideousness of Paul Brown’s designs (which make this perhaps the visually ugliest show at Covent Garden in living memory), this is one of those productions which just doesn’t engage with the score – Puccini creates an atmosphere of lush melancholy romance, but Kent can interpret it all only in terms of today’s headlines, and the clumsy brutality of his scenario flattens the plausibility of the story and the characters without illuminating or explaining them.

In the title role, Kristine Opolais sings with all the lovely lyrical ache and poise that Puccini must have dreamt of, while nobly submitting to the humiliations Kent inflicts on her. I long to see her Manon dressed à la Watteau.

The production leaves des Grieux as nothing more than a handsome guy in a sharp suit – something which Jonas Kaufmann scarcely needs to impersonate. Vocally, he was slow to move into top gear (“Donna non vidi mai” lacked the expansive ease that Domingo brought to it), but he fired his big guns in Act 3 and sounded the appropriate lachrymose notes when the game was up. I suspect, however, this is a role that he won’t return to.

There’s excellent work from the snappy Christopher Maltman as Lescaut, Benjamin Hulett as the student Edmondo and Nadezhda Karyazina as a lesbianic Musicista. No complaints about the conducting either: Antonio Pappano has Puccini in his bones, and fired the music with all the heart-on-sleeve passion that the soulless production lacked.

 back top