As unhappy accident had it, Saturday's revival of John Cox's production emerged shorter than planned. The Lescaut, Anthony Michaels- Moore, fell ill during Act 1, failing to reappear at the end of the act (necessitating quick-witted but bewildering improvisations from the cast and its conductor, Colin Davis). Since Michaels-Moore had felt fine at the start of the performance, his understudy had gone home. I don't know why a baritone from the chorus could not have been pressed into service. Instead Stuart Mander, the director's assistant, mimed in costume, while David Cyrus, the Royal Opera's head of music, sang the part from the side of the stage, reading the score by torchlight. Cyrus went at it with a will, but he is no singer, and quick cuts were wisely made. It says something about Massenet's dramaturgy that, although the cuts were considerable, the drama was unimpeded.
I tried to see it as a deconstructionist coup in a production sadly short of imagination. I failed. Peter Rice's huge sets struggle in vain to fill the stage, as if fearful of restricting the performance space. The room in which we find Manon and her lover Des Grieux in Act 2 is described in the programme as an 'apartment in the Rue Vivienne' but is as capacious as a Versailles stateroom. Every scene is rendered lifeless by unwieldy stage pictures, the chorus mills clumsily and the singers resort to grand gestures - not always what grand opera demands. Leontina Vaduva, who made her prize-winning Covent Garden debut as Manon in 1988, coped better than Giuseppe Sabbatini, whose Des Grieux strutted awkwardly.
Manon might be sister to Violetta in La Traviata. In different ways, both are women of pleasure; both fall for prosperous men still under the sway of their fathers; and both pay the same price: death. Violetta is a more complex figure than Manon, who is little more than a flighty and flirty flibbertigibbet. Nor can Massenet match Verdi's dramatic imagination: yet in a performance conducted with affection and energy - as here by Colin Davis - the opera moves an audience with its generosity, both emotional and musical. It's not the only opera that waits until the last half-hour to get to the heart of the matter, and a production less constrained by a conventional view of the opera stage might make it less of a period piece.
In rep at Royal Opera, Covent Gdn, WC2 (071-240 1911) to 21 July