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.