El Mercurio, 21 DE JUNIO DE 2014 (Translation)
By Juan Antonio Muñoz H., from London
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon now showcases herself from a window in the “red light district” and dies on the highway
The new production at the Royal Opera House explores the world of prostitution without squeamishness and moves to the 21st century the plot of Puccini’s opera.

Giacomo Puccini‘s popular “Manon Lescaut” is an opera about a desperate love born under the ominous stars of lust and money. Although Manon loves, she cannot fail to yield to the temptation of luxury, and her lover, knowing what she is like, does not resign himself to abandon her. The story tells about trade in women, “machismo” and youthful sexual energy, but as all of it happens in the middle of the 18th Century, a time of petticoats and wigs, none of this has ever been very explicit.

This is not the case of the Covent Garden’s production premiered on Tuesday, June 17, which split the audience into two: some wildly applauded régisseur Jonathan Kent’s proposal and Paul Brown’s designs while others booed, visibly upset.

The opera scene changed dramatically in recent years and, whether you like it or not, you have to learn to live with it. This “Manon Lescaut”, musically and vocally memorable, will always be remembered for its radical dramatic coherence and for driving Kent’s and his staff’s concepts to extremes, without taking the least account of what people will say or caring about the taste of the more traditional fans. There were no scruples or concessions made. The theatre itself bravely supports its commitment, which is demonstrated in the playbill which includes a crude article entitled “Sex for sale”, signed by Julia O’Connell Davidson, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, expert in sex and children trafficking, and author of books such as “Prostitution, Power and Freedom” (1998) and “Methods, Sex and Madness” (1994)

The action is transferred to the 21st Century, a time when modesty has become a museum piece. The first act takes place beside a motel for couples on the road, linked to a casino where sex is traded in cash. Manon (Kristine Opolais) arrives in a SUV, driven by her brother (Christopher Maltman), who aims to sell her to the rich and old Geronte de Revoir (Maurizio Muraro). She is rescued by the young and impetuous Renato des Grieux (Jonas Kaufmann), who falls in love with her at first sight and takes her to Paris. But after she has spent some time in the arms of her poor lover, she yearns for a life of comfort.

The second act of this production takes us to a sort of showcase of a “red light district” where Manon is at the beck and call of a master who shows her off to his friends and organizes music and dance sessions to recover (or remember) his lost sexual vitality. Thus, the musician, a role composed to be sung by a mezzo-soprano (Nadezhda Karyazina), has a sort of Lesbian scene with Manon, while the dance teacher (Robert Burt) rehearses with her the erotic routine that feeds Geronte’s hopes.

But Des Grieux loves her despite all of this and returns to look for her. After all his recriminations, she manages to seduce him once again; the love duet is sung between Manon’s legs. They are surprised in middle of a love scene and she is taken prisoner. The third act is in the port from where she will be deported together with other prostitutes, who are locked up in a kind of container in front of a walkway that leads them to a big poster advertising “Naïveté” (naivety) with an eager woman’s face placed beside a red orchid that is opening. The television closely follows the path of these women, left to the mercy and harassment of a public commenting on them and insulting them; a sort of criticism of the entertainment media and the audience it feeds. The fourth act takes place in the desert of Louisiana, where Manon dies of thirst in a semi destroyed causeway: the lovers end their days in a path that leads them nowhere.

Maybe this will shock or anger some people, but the fact is that, despite a somewhat cold first act and a second act verging on the “too much”, everything is well done and works like clockwork. Risqué? Yes, because the subject matter is risqué. But it is also bleak, decadent and tragic, and this is always made quite clear. Furthermore, the scenic apparatus of the Royal Opera House is so spectacular that it dazzles and fascinates, above all in the third act, with the huge grid of lights intervening the space to account for the port and also the morbid attention of the people and the media that profits from the misfortune of others.

It is very hard to find in the world a couple of singers who are able to do this. First of all, because the régie requires young, trained and beautiful bodies and also because on top of the difficulties of the score, there is constant scenic daring, especially for the soprano. Here there is no modesty.

Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann received a rousing ovation. She wore a mini skirt throughout the whole opera, sporting long, slender legs and sexy shoulders and insinuating a large bosom to which the libretto dedicates more than one phrase. He wore a tight linen shirt and slim fit trousers.

Opolais is a tall, blond, good-looking soprano, a convincing actress who sings with a certain refinement. She masters her character with a powerful and malleable voice and has no difficulties in any part of the vocal range. However, she needs to develop the internal vibration great Puccini interpreters have. The vocal personality is still trapped and pending, but we must closely follow her because her name is already in the best theatres.

And Jonas Kaufmann conquered the room from the very start with his passionate, and on occasions, demented singing. As if oblivious of himself, the tenor moved to tears with the desperate plea with which he softens the captain of the ship and in the final duet, “Fra le tue braccia”. His voice is a thick, virile and dark column from the low notes up to the highest ones, and his singing is a flexible design of shades and halftones that always translates itself into emotion.

At the head of the magnificent Royal Opera House orchestra, Antonio Pappano showed why he is one of the best conductors of today. This rich score was shown in all its details, with those beautiful melodies that float between the voices and the orchestral sounds. The variety of the instrumental texture went hand in hand with the maestro’s eagerness to show the chromatic harmony and the recurrent motifs that link this Puccinian title with Wagner.


  www.jkaufmann.info back top