The Stage, 18 June 2014
by George Hall
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon Lescaut
Two of today’s leading opera stars take to the stage in Jonathan Kent’s new production of Puccini’s romantic tragedy. No complaints about them. Perfectly matched physically to their roles and to each other, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and German tenor Jonas Kaufmann look and sound a dream. Their voices ample and glamorous, they encapsulate the doomed young lovers in their journey to despair in the wilderness of the final scene. It is hard to imagine either of the roles better done.

Yet the production itself disappoints. Kent and his designer Paul Brown emphasise a seamier view of the story than Puccini, or the writer of the novel on which his opera is based, would have recognised.

The period is the 1980s. Manon is no longer moving between true love and the life of a courtesan, but a sex worker pure and simple; the victimised women of the sex trafficking trade are her colleagues in a setting that is never anything other than sleazy. The whole meaning of Manon’s story is coarsened and deprived of nuance or subtlety. While some of Kent’s best work - his Fairy Queen or Turn of the Screw for Glyndebourne, for instance - suggested a reliable pair of hands, this staging suggests that he has lost the plot.

Yet the stagecraft is immaculate and the acting excellent - if only it were clear where the action is set and where it is going from scene to scene. The final two acts are particularly mystifying. There is some applause when the production team comes on stage at the end. There is also a good deal of booing.

A mixed evening, then, with musical values once again rising above an iffy staging. Sir Antonio Pappano conducts a splendid account of Puccini’s score, with Christopher Maltman and Maurizio Muraro expert in the secondary roles of Lescaut and Geronte de Revoir respectively.

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