Sex-fuelled Puccini makes a Freudian slip

Manon Lescaut | Coliseum, London The Coronation of Poppea | Coliseum, London
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Ever since its first cleavage-and-muscles poster campaign, ENO has been trying to convince the innocent musical punter that opera can be sexy. It's not an easy task, but over the last decade the Coliseum has set itself up as the frisky post-feminist popsy to Covent Garden's corseted old diva. But I wonder whether that role has become as constricting as Covent Garden's? This week ENO launched their season with two new productions, both predictably dominated by sex; a pop-culture, "Hello Boys!" Coronation of Poppea (complete with full nudity), and a Manon Lescaut built around sexual abuse.

Ever since its first cleavage-and-muscles poster campaign, ENO has been trying to convince the innocent musical punter that opera can be sexy. It's not an easy task, but over the last decade the Coliseum has set itself up as the frisky post-feminist popsy to Covent Garden's corseted old diva. But I wonder whether that role has become as constricting as Covent Garden's? This week ENO launched their season with two new productions, both predictably dominated by sex; a pop-culture, "Hello Boys!" Coronation of Poppea (complete with full nudity), and a Manon Lescaut built around sexual abuse.

Manon Lescaut is not an easy opera. There is too much missing information on the character of Manon; at the end of Act I she elopes with Des Grieux, by the opening scene of Act II she is established as mistress of the ageing but rich Geronte. No reasons are given for her sexual vacillations, so it's open season for directors of a psychological bent.

The common way of explaining Manon's progression from convent-girl to courtesan to thief is that she is greedy, feckless and stupid. But in Keith Warner's production, Manon is clever, manipulative, paranoid and self-destructive. Why? Because she has been a sex object since childhood. In the opening scene a nine-year-old Manon, in a sheer white nightdress, plays in front of the oppressive 10-foot mirrors that dominate the stage. Her character is thus laid out for us in an instant and her journey fixed. And sure enough, as she dies of thirst and exhaustion at the close of the opera, the face that is reflected back to her in the mirror is that of the child whose only worth is her sex. Manon's life in this production is a slow suicide.

Given that this was a post-Freudian interpretation, certain conventions were overturned. Stefanos Lazaridis's designs expose the fixings beneath the story's shining surface, with dirty scaffolding (ranging the circumference of the Coliseum's dress circle, up to the gods on either side of the stage and back into the proscenium) contrasted against a gilded spiral staircase - this little bird's golden cage. John Graham-Hall rolls three tenor parts into one lecherous but enfeebled puppeteer or narrator - a device that gives the 19th-century opera of this 18th-century story a pleasingly arch baroque quality. The chorus (arrayed along the scaffolding walkways) become a sinister, unsympathetic audience both to Manon's story and to our experience of witnessing it.

Warner has obviously done his research. Studies of sex abuse survivors reveal the mirror as a common obsession. Manon's skewed self-image dictates her every move and Nina Stemme carries the role with electrifying commitment, flitting easily between cynical child and naïve woman with an unearthly sheen to her voice and a riveting chest register. But I found the inference that Manon is or was involved in a sexual relationship with her brother - a lumbering David Kempster - hard to swallow, and there is nothing in the score to suggest this. Another problem was Martin Thompson's Des Grieux, who did all the right things vocally and physically (singing with Italianate focus while skittering easily up and down the ladders around the stage), yet failed to display real passion for Manon, or any evidence of a matching tendency to self-destruction.

Despite reservations about applying Freud to pre-Freudian Puccini, I'd recommend seeing this. Conductor Paul Daniel's clean account, free from saccharine rubato, forced me to reassess my impression of the score, which I had previously thought a dramatically incoherent mess arranged around a brief but beautiful string quartet. Whatever ENO's season brochure may say about the opera's melodies, Manon Lescaut is not Puccini in broad Romantic mode; it's a chilly, considered and subtly cruel opera. And although I remain unconvinced by the sex abuse slant - and hope that it wasn't a case of ENO being radical for radicalism's sake - I'm grateful to this disturbing production for shaking up my preconceptions.

If Manon had a surfeit of subtext, Steven Pimlott's Coronation of Poppea was utterly devoid of it. Ancient Rome via baroque opera via disco via the lens of an OK! magazine photographer is a kooky place. Lazaridis's scaffolding stayed, but instead of the mirrors we had a giant glitter heart and a hotchpotch of fashion motifs from 17th-century Venice to 1960s Venice Beach. The athletic caperings of the cast and the excellent male dancers are entirely enjoyable to watch in an "Ooh, fancy that!" kind of way, but after three hours of snogging and squeezing and grabbing and rubbing between male and female and female and female and male and male and wondering whether I should contact the RSPCA about the fauns and satyrs, I felt more than a little jaded. It was like one of those cheap documentaries on hen and stag parties; bluntly edited, brashly sexual and totally unerotic. Needless to say, the opera's political elements were played down.

At the end of the opera - which was delivered in "Previously on ER" breathless soundbites - we knew that Nero's courtesan wore a Wonderbra, liked to drink milk, was keen on sex and reeeally, reeeally wanted to get married. In short, Poppea was just a regular Cosmo-girl. Whether she actually schemed for power or just fancied the pants off Nero was unclear. (Monteverdi also left that hanging, but you do expect a director to make some kind of decision.) Despite Alice Coote's lavish application of her luscious mezzo voice to the music, Poppea seemed about as deep as Posh Spice - though she did sing rather better.

As everyone knows, you can't have a Posh without a Becks, and appositely enough, David Walker's bland, blond Nero was not blessed with the most golden of vocal cords. He grimly sang on to the bitter end - though there were several moments when I thought his voice was about to give up - squeezing out his compressed countertenor with evident effort. The vocal problems would have mattered less had his acting been convincing, but never have I seen a man so underwhelmed by underwiring. What chemistry there was between this Nero and his Poppea could only have been based on a desire to share each other's curling tongs.

Why, oh why, oh why was he cast? Y-fronts - that's why. No chance of a mezzo taking the male role in this production, for Nero makes his first entrance naked, and I'd have loved to have heard the "artistic compromise" conversation between conductor and director over that one. Still, Sarah Connolly (Octavia), Susan Gritton (Drusilla), Carolyn Sampson (Cupid), Eric Owens (Seneca) and the supporting cast showed exactly how this gripping, text-based music can and should be sung. And one happy side-effect of having two new productions on consecutive evenings was that the resident orchestra was too busy to make their annual stab at early music. So Monteverdi was left to the experts - in this case, Harry Christophers and the Purcell Quartet, plus recorders and a continuo section of viols, lirone, theorbos, harp, guitar, harpsichord, organ and regal - and it was easily the best Monteverdi playing I've heard at the ENO; responsive, inventive and highly coloured.

'Manon Lescaut' to 3 Nov; 'The Coronation of Poppea' to 21 Oct. Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300)

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