Opera News, September 2014
Puccini: Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House London, June 17, 2014
Manon Lescaut

On June 17, Puccini's Manon Lescaut returned to the stage of the Royal Opera House for the first time in more than thirty years. In the meantime, much has happened — including a propensity for stage directors to relocate and update the action of classic works that has become endemic and indeed nigh-on automatic. It quickly became clear on curtain-up that Puccini's version of the Abbé Prévost's eighteenth-century cautionary novel had been transferred to near-contemporary times — someone suggested the 1980s — though its location remained unsatisfyingly vague. Perhaps Act I's ordinary block of modern flats with a casino next door could have been in Amiens, or in a suburb of Paris, though it could have been almost anywhere. Upmarket pimp Geronte's mansion had become the gaudy interior of a brothel, where Manon — here clearly his star attraction, rather than his live-in lover — was evidently bored with having to dance for her numerous elderly clients while being filmed. The dancing master turned into the maker of a porno movie. Why were the madrigal singers there at all?

The final acts felt even more mystifying. Some sort of parade of sex-workers across a platform took place, but they appeared to be being manhandled along the way from flats notable for the kind of garishly colorful decor one might expect to see, for instance, in Amsterdam's red-light district. (Maybe these were the same flats visualized in the first scene, now seen from the outside?) The women were next, for some reason, pushed through a film poster; exactly who was roughing them up along the way it was difficult to say — perhaps representatives of sex traffickers. (They seemed to be an unofficial grouping.) On the other side of the poster lay a dilapidated and disused roadside corner of a motorway, where Manon and des Grieux spent their final, despairing scene: not much of a journey appeared to have been involved in getting there, and certainly not a transcontinental one.

In effect, director Jonathan Kent and his designer Paul Brown had not so much staged Manon Lescaut as shoehorned it, often unwillingly and nonsensically, into their new opera about the contemporary sex trade, which utilized the same music and the same Italian text. Some of the more obvious discrepancies thrown up by this wholesale revamp were quietly removed from the English surtitles and the program-book synopsis, which made no reference, for instance, to any specific location at all. Maybe director and designer care so deeply about the iniquities of the sex trade that they have a desperate need to write a new opera all about them. Puccini's opera, and its audience, meanwhile, deserve to have Manon Lescaut taken seriously on its own terms.

Musically this was a strong evening. It is hard to think of a contemporary soprano and tenor pairing better equipped, both vocally and physically, for the demands of the two central roles than Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and German star tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Opolais could maybe do with an extra ounce or two of cream on the tone at the role's extreme climaxes, but she went for all of them with boldness and confidence, as well as with broad success. She also shaped Puccini's lines with imagination. So did Kaufmann, whose grainy but undeniably handsome tone may not be inherently Italianate in the classic mold, but whose impeccable phrasing and keen awareness of both musical and textual meaning carried him through to triumphant acclaim at his curtain call.

The opera, of course, depends — and to an unusual degree — on the central casting of the amorous duo. Yet also making an appreciable mark were English baritone Christopher Maltman, who seized every opportunity as Manon's brother Lescaut, here a low-level pimp, and the ample bass of Italian Maurizio Muraro, whose Geronte de Ravoir was conceived and executed on a grandly sonorous scale. Benjamin Hulett sang Edmondo's Act I solos with some charm, despite being presented as a baseball-hatted kid-on-the-block.

Conducting the score was the company's music director, Antonio Pappano, whose natural musical territory this might be expected to be — and so it proved. Offering a detailed focus on the score and its many intricate and incidental beauties, he also brought to it a sense of grander overview, page by page, scene by scene and act by act, that gave it continuity and momentum on a much longer-term scale.


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