Seen and Heard International
Jim Pritchard
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 24, 2014
Italianate Ardour in Pappano’s Manon Lescaut
United Kingdom Puccini, Manon Lescaut: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Broadcast to the Empire Cinema, Basildon, Essex, 24.6.2014. (JPr)
During a discussion with Covent Garden’s director of opera, Kaspar Holten, it emerged that it has been thirty years since Manon Lescaut was last put on there; the year was 1983 and I was there to see Kiri Te Kanawa, Plácido Domingo and Thomas Allen conducted by the late Giuseppe Sinopoli in a vastly different production from Jonathan Kent’s new one.

There seems to a revival of interest in Puccini’s break-through work that had a difficult gestation. It is still probably not entirely clear who is responsible for the text as five librettists were involved adapting a story based on Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. These were: Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica. The always difficult-to-please composer and his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, are also believed to have contributed to the libretto that probably was completed by Illica and Giacosa who went on to work with Puccini on his next three – and most successful – works, La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Regardless of whether the heavily-cut story – as we see now – has any dramatic coherence, because it leaps forward in time so often, at its 1893 première Manon Lescaut was a sensation. Most importantly, as the conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano, enthused – during a couple of pre-recorded music lectures he gave us at the piano – it contains endless stretches of glorious music.

Kaspar Holten addressed the issue of this problematic work by suggesting it is not the ‘Romantic pretty fantasy’ most consider it to be and how ‘This story is about something that is very much alive today – people selling themselves, emotions being for sale – the dilemma about wanting everything and having to make choices in life … it’s all in the opera.’ He went on to add that what we were seeing on stage – through the vision of Jonathan Kent and his designer, Paul Brown – were ‘scenes of modern life that are recurring’ and an ‘emotional landscape’ and possibly even … a nightmare.

The challenging title role needs a classic lirico-spinto soprano, a voice that has Italianate lyrical grace with power in reserve. Though I have only recently seen Kristīne Opolais in cinema relays rather than live, she seems to be one of the finest Puccini singers of the current generation. Her voice can cope with all the extended passages of demandingly intense and penetrating singing, yet she is a consummate singer-actor and totally believable as the naïve short-skirted young woman we first meet (in Jonathan Kent’s contemporary production) outside a casino in Amiens, France. Here her unprincipled brother, Lescaut, an army sergeant, is escorting her to a convent but the conspicuously wealthy, cigar-smoking Geronte tells him that he wants Manon for himself and her brother agrees to this.

Ms Opolais affectingly conveyed Manon’s girlish awkwardness and with a voice full of nuanced expression can act just as well with her voice, as physically. The turning point in the story comes early, when Manon emerges from a people-carrier to meet the dashing Chevalier des Grieux, only a poor student; here the celebrated German tenor Jonas Kaufmann whom we first encounter reading a book by Albert Camus. During their first tentative duet Ms Opolais makes it perfectly clear through her sensuous singing that Manon’s attraction to Des Grieux is not just an impetuous rebellious act but a rootless young woman’s yearning for being needed and for all-consuming love.

I hesitate to criticise Jonas Kaufmann as few will agree with me but he is just not a Puccini singer and most performances of his now are the same whether it is Puccini, Massenet, Verdi or Wagner. Whilst, yes, there is ringing power and some intense fervour, nevertheless, his singing seems to be to be over-emotive and lacks Ms Opolais’s idiomatic lyrical style. His burnished baritonal sound was darker at time than Christopher Maltman’s splendidly sung, venal, Lescaut. Also for some reason Mr Kaufmann will resort to crooning in his head voice that doesn’t seem right sometimes.

In Act II Manon has evolved from a young, impulsive woman to the superficial plaything of Geronte, who keeps her in luxury, dressed as a ‘baby doll’ in pink, and probably having had a boob-job is now the star of a sex-themed reality TV show … and a row of bald old men watch as she preens and ‘dances’ (gyrates) for their pleasure. Later in this Act as Manon and Des Grieux ‘reconnected’ what we saw as they tried to tear the clothes of each other was 18 rated and it was good that most of those in Basildon’s Empire Cinema were (as always) nearer 68!

Act III was a sex-workers’ ‘cattle market’ in a red-light district somewhere – I didn’t entirely understand how this was relevant – and finally the Act IV road to Louisiana was a huge and realistic half-demolished flyover emerging from a billboard backdrop of Utah’s Monument Valley. In the demanding final scene, when Manon and Des Grieux are dying in the wilderness a dishevelled Kristīne Opolais was again riveting. She sang most of her impassioned aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ while lying on her side, struggling to sit up. Her singing, of course, had a desperation to it because of her character’s plight but it remained intrinsically beautiful. Ms Opolais must have been grateful for the opera to end so that she could soon put on some clothes and maybe feel fully dressed for the first time in a few hours!

Antonio Pappano is at his best in Puccini and brought out – with pliant clarity – all the Italianate ardour and symphonic sweep of Manon Lescaut through a fresh, lush, and wonderfully shaded performance from his reliable orchestra. The Royal Opera’s Chorus made their own vivid – and crisply articulated – contribution when needed in Act I and especially as Manon and her fellow female prisoners head for exile. Maurizio Muraro was suitably cast as an obese, lascivious, Geronte whose power comes from his ability to dole out large denomination Euro notes. Benjamin Hulett’s bright tenor voice made more of the Brazilian football shirt-wearing student, Edmondo, than possibly there is in the score for him.
I suspect Jonathan Kent’s production was devised with the cinema audience – and future DVD release – in mind and worked fantastically well on that level. No one will have complained – depending on what pleases you – at the endless close-ups of Ms Opolais or Mr Kaufmann during Jonathan Haswell’s impeccable direction for the screen. My final praise goes to the Empire Cinema in Basildon for their absolutely start-of-the-art ‘natural’ sound and splendid projection – for most of the live relay it was as though I was in the Royal Opera House sitting at the very front of the stalls. Bryn Terfel was a naturally engaging host for the live transmission and the interviews have sensibly retreated backstage from the Paul Hamlyn Hall and it is conspicuous how few people are there compared to the overstaffed Metropolitan Opera!

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