Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2014Posted on 18 June 2014
The coldness of Jonathan Kent’s new production, and the barrage of boos greeting the creative team at the curtain calls, contrasted with the huge warmth of the singing and conducting.
Antonio Pappano, who has claimed this to be his favourite Puccini opera, fully brought out the vividness and emotion of the composer’s first major success. The bleakness of Act IV and the love duet in Act II came over with enormous conviction, in no small part of course due to Kristīne Opolais and Jonas Kaufman. Her purity of tone, prettiness and air of wilful naïveté made her a perfect Manon, and Kaufman is a tenor of extraordinary versatility whose dramatic presence and heroic timbre as Des Grieux really opened things up with his Donna non vidi mai fifteen minutes into Act I. Their hugely physical interactions grounded the story in a united passion broken only by Manon’s love of luxury and excitement, so well illustrated in Act II.
In the other major role, Christopher Maltman made an outstanding Lescaut of great vocal strength and engaging disreputability. Like brother, like sister, and the family surely had a reason for sending Manon away to a Convent! The wealthy Geronte, who keeps Manon but throws her to the dogs when he finds her with Des Grieux again, was very well portrayed by Maurizio Muraro, and as the ‘musician’ he brings in to engage with her in Act II, Nadezhda Karyazina showed a lovely clarity of tone. In Act I, Benjamin Hulett sang superbly as the student Edmondo, the man who gets the whole vocal side of the opera going and helps contrive Des Grieux’s abduction of Manon.
This production, the first in thirty years for Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden, is by director Jonathan Kent, designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Mark Henderson, who all worked together so well on Tosca, but it may prove a less successful venture this time. Updating the action three hundred years from the first half of the eighteenth century to the twenty-first has dubious appeal, though I liked the Act II set, which shows a dream room for a young woman like Manon, the interior décor of pinks, white and silver complemented by a giant orchid peeping sideways from beneath the floor. Into this room Geronte brings a ‘musician’ who tries to engage Manon in a soft porn scene, illustrating voyeuristic tendencies later emphasised by the men who enter and sit in a row to watch. Among these silent gawkers in their rubber head masks is Des Grieux himself, who removes his mask after the others leave, and we are into the glorious love duet. It’s a clever contrivance, but perhaps a bit too clever.
Yet the music is the essence, and with Pappano and a dream cast this was a memorable performance.
Performances continue on various dates until July 7, with a live screening at 18:45 on June 24 and a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast on July 1 — for details click here.