The Observer, 22 June 2014
Fiona Maddocks
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 Jonas Kaufmann
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 present.

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 never pushed.

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.

When the 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.

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