The Observer, 22 June 2014
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon Lescaut review – impassioned and sumptuous
Puccini's score drew lusty performances from Kristine Opolais and
Raw and uneven, without a shred of comfort, Manon Lescaut ambushes by simple
means. Passion is embedded in every note. However slim or clumsy the
libretto, Puccini's music grips you in its velvet claws. This was so last
week, when Antonio Pappano conducted the first new production of the work at
the Royal Opera House for three decades.
The playing was sumptuous,
the cast magnificent. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and the German tenor
Jonas Kaufmann sang the fated lovers, Manon and Des Grieux. Both these world
stars were performing their roles for the first time. If ticket prices were
super high, excitement was even keener, and the final roars of approval
confirmed that this had been a special night.
It was not an
unmitigated success. Quarters of the audience made it clear they would have
preferred frock coats and powdered wigs to the updated tawdriness on offer.
The boo-ometer, always an instant dampener of spirits, was in action,
directed at the production team when they took their bow. Why not wave a
white handkerchief instead? If you are the booing type, you can always keep
one about your person – less coarse and decidedly less predictable.
In Jonathan Kent's staging, Paul Brown's sets drew inspiration from various
red-light districts and gaming tables of the modern world. It was lit, to
vivid effect, by Mark Henderson. The desolate road to Louisiana is a
half-demolished flyover, which ends abruptly mid-air, all tarmac and grit.
Manon is dressed in sub-Versace rococo puffball vulgarity, with thigh-high
white socks and padded breasts to titivate her dribbling clients. With
rolling cameras and lighting rigs in play, the notion of voyeurism was ever
It was a perfectly legitimate, if cumbersome, approach to
the tale of a girl who shuns the convent and follows money and the low life,
here represented as the sex industry. (Massenet had already made Abbé
Prévost's 1731 novel into a much-performed opera, Manon, in 1884 – 10 years
ahead of Puccini and with a more coherent narrative.) Whether or not you
like the Kent-Brown style – we've seen better, we've seen worse – mattered
less than the fact that the sets were so complicated and dominant that they
undermined the individual performances, often leaving the singers aurally
and dramatically stranded.
In Act I, the designs follow original
requirements quite accurately. An inn, a gaming table and stairs leading to
the upper level become a deco-style apartment block with a spiral staircase,
complete with a bar and young partygoers, among them Edmondo (Benjamin
Hulett), celebrating the pleasures of youth. The chorus – who, like the
orchestra, settled into triumphant form after a bumpy start – dance and
drink energetically. Manon and Lescaut (Christopher Maltman), her
opportunistic brother, enter not in a stagecoach but in a people carrier.
Des Grieux is already there, melancholy and observing, sitting halfway
up the stairs, standing out in dark suit and open-necked white shirt. Yet
Kaufmann's first vocal entry, beginning with the word "L'amor", sounded
underpowered, unsupported by the angles and wings of the scenery. He looked
out of sorts and somewhat uncomfortable beyond the demands of the role.
Opolais, pure-toned and powerful, was affected too. All the cast sounded as
if singing in different rooms.
Only in the enormous love duet in Act
II did the stars come into their own, Opolais and Kaufmann uniting in the
climactic top notes as they declared their love. This glorious setpiece, a
masterclass in the art of Puccini, lasts nearly 10 minutes. The whole gamut
of fidelity, trust, desire is traced through the leaps and falls, swells and
sighs, pianissimos and fortissimos of the score, with cumulative,
impassioned effect. Pappano, a natural Puccinian, urged the music on but
Usually the couple rotate flirtatiously and end up in a
clinch on a chaise longue. Here, almost from the start, Kaufmann and Opolais
were splayed, lustily, on fuchsia sheets in a vast, ornate silver bed.
Manon, tempted by wealth her lover cannot offer, is by now a kept woman. The
only reason, one suspects, they couldn't rip their clothes off completely
was that Puccini allows them no vocal letup. They pour their hearts out, but
hardly draw breath for long enough to do anything about it.
rich Geronte – delivered with dignity by Maurizio Muraro – bursts in and
finds them, the only wonder is that the spoilt Manon spends so long stuffing
her pink satin pillowcase with jewels before fleeing. Given the choice, was
there any woman present in the opera house who would have dithered over a
necklace instead of racing wild-eyed after Jonas Kaufmann? As well as being
the most exceptional and in-demand tenor, he is also the most absurdly
handsome. See for yourself on 24 June, when Manon Lescaut will be shown in
cinemas as part of the Royal Opera Live season.