Manon, opera review: 'There are many things to like about this production'

4.00

Royal Opera House, London

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence