Manon, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2010

If you want an opera about a femme fatale, this is it, based on Prévost’s L’histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. It is probably Massenet’s most popular work, though oddly it hasn’t been performed at Covent Garden since 1994. I love it and was thoroughly looking forward to this new production, with Anna Netrebko as Manon and Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux, making his debut with The Royal Opera. He performed superbly — his voice is extremely strong — and she sang and acted wonderfully as usual. But the whole thing left me cold — why?

Act I, Royal Opera photo by Bill Cooper

Certainly Act I was a great disappointment. The sets placed the inn on the stage level, but with the houses so high above it that the performers at street level could not all be fully seen from the front row of the Amphitheatre, and apparently from further back could not be seen at all. This ‘sight-line’ problem seems to plague Covent Garden, and if the directors won’t fix it then someone from the management has to step in — you simply can’t have almost the whole Amphitheatre as an area of ‘restricted view’. But it wasn’t just the sets in Act I; the singing and speaking boomed out far too loudly, and from a beginning like that there is nowhere to go. Evidently the director, Laurent Pelly intended that Christophe Mortagne play Monsieur GM as a loud-mouthed boor. But he seemed more like an angry tradesman than a powerful cabinet minister, and it was only when Anna Netrebko entered, portraying an ingénue that things improved. Her acting here, and when she dies in Act V, was convincing, and she interacted well with Vittorio Grigolo throughout the opera. Their singing was extremely powerful, though I would have preferred more gentleness at times, perhaps a hint of greater introspection. William Shimell had excellent stage presence as De Brétigny, with Russell Braun as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, and Christof Fischesser was excellent as Des Grieux’s father.

Laurent Pelly’s current Covent Garden production of La Fille du Régiment is wonderful, but I don’t think this opera should be played with the comic touch that he is so good at. The pantomime aspects of Act I returned in Act III, particularly with the superfluous ballet interlude, which led to the dancers being carried off by the ‘gentlemen’. Massenet’s music demands more emotional sincerity than was evident here. The plaintively coquettish pleading in Act III “N’est-ce plus ma voix? N’ai-je plus mon nom? N’est-ce plus Manon?” was strongly sung, but failed to bring out the pathos. Despite Antonio Pappano being at the helm in the orchestra pit, I felt a lack of sensitivity between orchestra and singers, and this opera should have a quiet side that seemed to be absent here. Manon herself has a dual nature, wanting to live simply with Des Grieux, yet still wanting the parties and jewels that money can bring, and at the end when Des Grieux urges her to wake up, as night is falling and he sees the first star, she sings “Ah! le beau diamant! Tu vois, je suis encore coquette“. There should be a pull at the heart strings, but it wasn’t there, and the audience seemed unmoved, though there was deservedly strong applause at the end for Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo.

Sets by Chantal Thomas, with costumes by Laurent Pelly, were modern, and there were some colourful touches. Manon’s costumes in Acts I and V were excellent, and her Act IV dress in shocking pink contrasted dramatically with the green of the gambling den, but her dress in the second scene of Act III, when she persuades Des Grieux to go with her and abandon his commitment to take holy vows, seemed out of place and unflattering. The black suits for the men were all a bit too much, and what was that vast orange balloon doing in the first scene of Act III? It looked like something out of the old 1960s television series The Prisoner.

Act III scene 1, Royal Opera photo by Bill Cooper

At the end, Manon’s final words are “Il le faut! Il le faut! Et c’est là, l’histoire de Manon Lescaut“, but if that was the story I missed it. I can admire the cold beauty of this production, but despite the powerful singing and orchestral playing, I was left unmoved.

2 Responses to “Manon, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2010”

  1. Imogen Dent says:

    Looking at the photograph from Act 3 I wonder if the director has decided it all takes place in Brussels? The setting does look oddly like the Gare du Nord area (though I think the Brussels Balloon is blue, not orange). Ignore me if I’m barking up the wrong tree – I couldn’t get tickets for this production so haven’t seen it.

  2. markronan says:

    Interesting comment, Imogen. Thank you for pointing this out.

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