Thursday, June 19, 2014

Manon Top

The new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, directed by Jonathan Kent, has already divided audiences into those who applaud the contemporary relevance of its updating and those who'd rather just see the beautiful Kristine Opolais clad in a nice pretty dress. Others still were so swept away by the music and its ravishing performance that they didn't much care what was going on on the stage in any case.

The Manon Top is not Jonas Kaufmann - well, he is, but there's someone else too. It's the conductor, Tony Pappano. That ROH orchestra blazed almost as if Toscanini himself had stepped out in front of them. The highlight of the evening was the Intermezzo before the second half, given to us with an urgency, sweep and intensity of tone that could raise your hair and crack your heart open. This rarely-performed opera is dramatically problematic - it could use an extra scene or two to make the narrative less patchy - but the music is some of Puccini's finest (personally I'd even put it ahead of Butterfly) and an interpretation of this quality is absolutely what it needs, restoring it to the front ranks where it belongs. Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann matched Pappano's glories turn for turn: Kaufmann contained and paced his ever-irresistible singing, saving the best for the last act, and Opolais infused every vivid note with her character's charismatic personality. The three together were a dream-team, inspiring one another to a level of artistic wonder that we're lucky to be alive to hear.

Now, back to the production. Manon Lescaut is not a nice pretty story. The book, by the Abbé Prévost, is light years away from big romantic tunes; it's a terse, nasty page-turner, an 18th-century thriller that careers at high speed through a hideous, greedy and depraved world which the clever Manon tries to use for her own ends, but which eventually destroys not only her innocence but her life.

Contemporary? Relevant? Just a little. Intriguing to note that there are no fewer than three different adaptations of the book on offer at the ROH this year: operas by Puccini and Massenet and, in the autumn, the Kenneth MacMillan ballet (including several performances with Natalia Osipova in the lead); four if you include the return of Turnage's Anna Nicole, which opens the season - the same kind of story, only real. This can't be a coincidence.

Jonathan Kent's production was booed on opening night - though it was cheered, too. It maybe needs time to warm up and settle a little more, but the concept is powerful and the tragedy overwhelming: Opolais and Kaufmann are stranded as if mid-air at the end of a collapsed and abandoned motorway in the middle of the American nowhere.

At the outset Manon arrives by car in a housing estate of pre-fab flats with a casino to hand; her wide-boy brother (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher Maltman) never flinches at the idea of selling his mini-skirted sister to the imposing Geronte. She becomes instantly an object, a blank slate for the depraved manipulation of all around her with the sole exception of Des Grieux.

Kaufmann's Des Grieux is a touchstone for other values, other worlds - choosing a book when others choose the gambling tables, holding on to the concept of love when it leaves others unscathed; however much the students sing about it at the start, they are clearly out for less exalted emotional encounters. Manon, meeting his impassioned declarations, responds like a rabbit in the headlights; such things are beyond her spheres of reference and when she runs off with him, she is running away from Geronte rather than towards her new life.

Puccini's opera, unlike Massenet's and the ballet, lacks a scene in which Manon and Des Grieux are poor but happy. Instead we cut straight to Geronte's mansion: Manon has abandoned love for luxury. Cue cameras: Kent turns Geronte implicitly into a porn king, filming Manon in a ghastly blonde wig and pink Barbie dress, the dancing master transformed into the director, instructing her while the visiting singer (Nadezhda Karyazina) engages in some apparently titillating girl-on-girl manoeuvres with her. There isn't much that any director can do to make her response more sympathetic, though, when Des Grieux arrives to rescue her and she hesitates too long because she doesn't want to leave her jewels behind.

The hypocrisy of this society, though, is underlined by the way Geronte and his friends debase, exploit and corrupt Manon, but then have her arrested and deported for prostitution. The scene by the ship in Act III turns into reality TV: Des Grieux's plea to go with her takes place under the lights and cameras. (Aside: reality TV is turning into an operatic trope and is on the verge of becoming a cliché: after seeing it in ENO's Götterdämmerung and, of course, Anna Nicole, I suspect that perhaps it's time to leave it for a while. One could say the same about staircases, spiral and otherwise.)

Act III, by the ship, is dominated by a huge poster: a beautiful face, a giant pink lily, the word NAÏVETE emblazoned across the image as if for a perfume advert. Later, the poster is slashed, across the model's cheek. This is a world that has gone beyond the romanticisation of naïveté, one that can only corrupt and disfigure beauty, one that experiences beauty only to squander it for greed. And when we see the blasted-out motorway in the final scene, it seems symbolic in the extreme. The crash barrier is broken. It is not only Manon that is dying, ruined and corrupted and learning her lessons too late; it is, quite possibly, western society as a whole.

Try seeing the production with open eyes. If you don't like it, close them and listen to the performance. But this Manon Lescaut succeeds because its director understands the story is too close for comfort.