Manon, opera review: 'There are many things to like about this production'
Royal Opera House, London
Wednesday 15 January 2014
Conceived as an answer to Verdi, Massenet’s Manon is one of the high water marks of late 19th century French opera comique, even though it ends with its wasted heroine dying in her lover’s arms.
Whereas the novel on which it was based focuses on the tragedy of noble young Des Grieux, infatuated with his fun-loving Manon, Massenet’s focus is on the all-engulfing folie a deux she inspires. But he was also presenting an acceptable moral for his time. Parisian bourgeoises were horrified and also fascinated by the grandes horizontales who snared their husbands and plunged them into debt; polite society demanded that every such story should end with the courtesan’s demise.
Laurent Pelly’s 2010 production, now in its first revival, appropriately sets the opera in the Belle Epoque, and the curtain rises on a daintily stylised evocation of the French capital peopled by top-hatted gents and opulently-bustled ladies. And from among these Ermonela Jaho’s Manon – en route to the convent where she is being sent - emerges like a spring flower. Massenet gets straight to the point with his heroine, giving her a hugely demanding aria to express her dizzy delight at the world she finds herself in: a challenge to which this young Albanian soprano rises with winning grace.
Cue the appearance of Matthew Polenzani as Des Grieux, and no time is lost there either: when their eyes meet it’s the immediate coup de foudre. Apprised of her plight, the young man swears he will save her or die in the attempt, whereupon they deliver a long and ecstatic duet. But their path is strewn with obstacles, and hedged about with jealousies: after a brief idyll together, she settles for a loveless high-society alliance while he takes holy orders… With each subsequent twist in the plot being milked by Massenet for maximum emotional effect, the vocal duties are onerous, but these remarkable singers sail effortlessly through everything, her warm fullness of tone balanced by his intense, floating sweetness.
There are many things to like about this production. Chantal Thomas’s designs have a developing internal logic, with her set for St Sulpice evoking a splendidly ecclesiastical gloom, while the receding perspectives of the sea-front at Le Havre become a symbolic expression of Manon’s dissolution.
The movement direction is sharp and vivid, with the chorus making a plausible carnival crowd, and the ballet interlude is cleverly integrated into the action. There are some superb supporting performances, most notably that of Christophe Mortagne as the arch-seducer Guillot, lickety-spit perfect in every detail. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume makes the strongest possible case for regarding Massenet as a master-orchestrator.
The one weakness lies at the core of the work itself. As a mere good-time girl, Manon can’t move us as Violetta does in La Traviata, nor even as Carmen does: she’s a cardboard character, not driven by tragic necessity. As a dramatist, Massenet is not in the same league as Puccini and Verdi. But time and again Jaho and Polenzani manage to disguise this problem through the sublime beauty of their singing.
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Jack the Ripper: Scientist who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 2 Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake report claiming the street artist's identity has been revealed
- 3 Are you ready for Crazy Doritos, the red-hot snack food craze sweeping Mexico’s streets?
- 4 Drink alcohol and eat meat to improve male fertility - but cut down on coffee, studies suggest
- 5 Former East 17 frontman Brian Harvey turns up at Downing Street and 'demands to speak to Prime Minister'
Breaking Bad season 6 is still not happening
Doctor Who, Flatline - review: Clara isn’t half bad as the Time Lord
Downton Abbey review series 5, episode 5: Period drama falls disappointingly flat
Star Wars memorabilia called a 'bit of plastic' on Antiques Roadshow by Fiona Bruce valued at £50,000
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt gives intriguing performance as unsympathetic war hero
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Amal Alamuddin calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain: 'Injustice has persisted for too long'
Lord Freud: Tory welfare minister apologises after saying disabled people are 'not worth’ the minimum wage