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
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy