Monday 23 June 2014

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden - less than the sum of its parts?

Jonas Kaufmann in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House -  The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014
Jonas Kaufmann in Act 1 of Manon Lescaut
The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014
Jonathan Kent's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden this month (we caught the 20 June performance) was proudly billed as the Royal Opera's first production of the opera for 30 years. What the publicity did not tell you was that 30 years ago, Piero Faggioni was due to direct and design the opera but the set's complexity meant that it would have needed the theatre to go dark to take it down. In the resulting fuss Faggioni walked out and left the Royal Opera with a gala performance with Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa and no production. They had to borrow one from Scottish Opera

Thankfully, Jonathan Kent's new production in Paul Brown's designs had no such controversy though Brown's contemporary set, base round a three-storey hotel-like structure, was substantial. And, it has to be said, you could not see the action on the top floor from the Amphitheatre.

Jonathan Kent set the opera in the present day. Act one was a glitzy hotel, with Manon arriving by chauffered car. Act two saw her living in a ritzy but kitschy perspex and pink room in which it became apparent, she was filmed in all sorts of sexy games. Act three took place, I'm not sure where; The ending of it was a bizarre game show and the cameo for the lamp lighter was sung by the game show's lighting man. Act four was on a bleak ruined desert highway. Except that at the end of the game show, everyone left through a tear made in a huge advertising hording. In act four, this was reversed with a huge view of Monument valley, complete with a tear. D. actually though that the set for act four looked like a huge unmade bed.

The fundamental problem with the production was Kent's decision to make it naturalistic. In WNO's recent staging, director Mariusz Trelinsky effectively deconstructed the work (see Hilary's review on this blog). But Kent gave us ultra-realism, which kept you asking questions. Would this Manon really be off to a convent? Who was Des Grieux, so well dressed yet without money? Why can't he find Manon in act two when she is clearly a video/internet celebrity? The list goes on and the production required a huge suspension of disbelief.

Kristine Opolais, Christopher Maltman and Maurizio Muraro in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House -  The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014
Kristine Opolais, Christopher Maltman and Maurizio Muraro in act two of Manon Lescaut The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014
Thankfully, the performances from Jonas Kaufmann, Kristina Opolais, Christopher Maltman and Maurizio Muraro and the cast, conducted by Antonio Pappano, blazed with passion and intensity. Kaufmann was on thrilling form, singing Puccini's lines with firm well modulated tones and a gorgeous sense of the music's shape This was singing which contained intelligence and visceral thrill in equal measure.

But Puccini's opera is not a masterpiece, and Kaufmann's performance as Des Grieux rather highlighted the fact that it is a series of great tunes stuck together with waffle (Puccini would develop conciseness and drama in his next opera, La Boheme). I really wanted to hear Kaufmann in a meatier role. And the picky voice in the back of my head kept pointing out that Kaufmann looked and sounded too mature, with his dark baritonal timbre and firm dramatic tones. Kaufmann can still singing both Wagner and Puccini (and Verdi too) with intelligence and beauty but his voice no longer quite has the elasticity and youthful brilliance the role needs. As I said, I'm being picky and faced with such thrilling yet intelligent singing it was easy to sit back and enjoy.

Kaufmann was finely partnered by Kristine Opolais, who gave a bright and vibrant account of the role of Manon. The first two acts did not really give her much to work with and we never really got a sense of who Manon was and what motivated her. But in the final act, Opolais was marvellously moving in Manon's death scene. And the liaison with Kaufmann's Des Grieux fairly crackled.

Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House -  The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014
Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann in act four of Manon Lescaut
The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014
Christopher Maltman as an attractively seductive Lescaut, always on the make and getting away with it, though Puccini does seem to rather lose interest in the character in the second half of the opera. Maurizio Muraro made a suitably saturnine Geronte. Nigel Cliffe was the Innkeeper, Jeremy White the Naval Captain (now a game show host) and Robert Burt the Dancing Master (here directing the erotic video with Manon). Many of the smaller roles were cast from Jette Parker Young Artists. Benjamin Hutlett impressed with the vibrancy of his performance as Esmonde, Nadezhda Karyazin was a poised musician, Jihoon Kim the Sergeant and Luis Gomes managed to steal the scene in which his sang the lamp lighter, with a finely turned performance.

Antonio Pappano conducted with a nice feel for the sweep of Puccini's score and a flexibility which allowed the music to breath. Though I did wonder whether some scenes could have had more urgency. The orchestra responded with a glorious well upholstered sound.

I have to confess that I found this evening rather less than the sum of its parts. Certainly I do wonder how well Kent's production will survive revival with less charismatic principals. But it was worth the evening for the shining account of the main roles from Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais, combining musicality with smouldering intensity.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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