June 24th, 2014, one Tuesday, The Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, live in HD
Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
Director: Jonathan Kent, designs: Paul Brown
Kristīne Opolais (Manon Lescaut), Cristopher Maltman (Lescaut), Jonas Kaufmann (Chevalier des Grieux), Maurizio Muraro (Geronte de Ravoir), Benjamin Hulett (Edmondo), Robert Burt (dancing master), Nadezhda Karyazin (singer), Luis Gomes (lamp lighter), Jeremy White (naval captain), Jihoon Kim (Sergeant), Nigel Cliffe (innkeeper)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
The last HD transmission from the Covent Garden, but what a performance! After Tosca at the Bucharest National Opera and La bohème at the National Romanian Opera in Iasi, Puccini returned, with an opera sung rather seldom: Manon Lescaut. Seldom for a very simple reason: there are not many artists who can sing it extraordinarily. Des Grieux is a very difficult part – a romantic young man, sensitive, unhappy, a poet, but who needs a very strong voice, without sounding mature or macho. If you want, a kind of Madama Butterfly, with the eternal problem of quindici netti, netti… Manon is not simple either, an 18 years old coquettish girl, who gives in easily to all temptations, but with a voice at Des Grieux’ level.
Moreover, the Royal Opera House premiered a new production of this opera, signed by Jonathan Kent, which replaced Friedrich Götz’ legendary classical production with Domingo and Te Kanawa, from 1983, preserved on DVD. This time, in 2014, we have the translation to contemporaneity and some metaphors. The first act, of the inn, in Amiens, takes place in the vicinity of a rather depressing resort, which suggested, for me, a very functional airport hotel. Mainly because it is pretty implausible for a group of people to fraternize and to make such noise in the evening, as in the choir Puccini put in his opera. But the delay of a plane could produce such an effect. The second act, in Geronte de Ravoir’s house, takes place in a room of exquisite bad taste, belonging to a nouveau riche. Manon, who looked like a young tourist in the first act, beautiful and apparently ingenuous, is transformed into an object, a sexual stereotype of old men, lustful but rich, a playmate, and here we have a metaphor. Lescaut has no uniform and no sign that he has ever been a soldier, but he has his negative, opportunistic side, that transforms him into a kind of pimp, ok, a subtle one, that trafficks high class escorts. And yes, this production talks about sex, too, almost explicitly, at the end of act II, when Des Grieux comes to kidnap Manon again, this time from Geronte de Ravoir’s huge house. A memorable sequence, of very emotional normality, a sign that the opera is living a new youth, beyond budgetary constraints and bankruptcy.
In fact, the part I liked the most was act II, more sulphurous than in any other production of this opera. But how can you preserve the scandalous traits of Abbé Prévost’s novel, which was forbidden and burnt publicly while he was still alive? Puccini’s opera does not even keep too much of this part, which was very provocative in the XVIIIth century. And today, a classical production, with crinolines, frock coats, wigs and powder would look more like a fairy tale for children if compared to the intentions of the novel. Therefore, the scenes when they were shooting a pictorial, or the soft gay porn scenes with the music teacher, watched by some voyeurists among which Renato des Grieux, and, of course, Geronte de Ravoir (who watches the object of his desire through semitransparent walls), create precisely this scandalous atmosphere, which could make a conservative public leave the auditorium in the middle of the performance. It would not be the first time when Prévost would be morally purged, but this time, the spirit of his story has been preserved. I can’t even imagine the reactions such a production would have produced in the Bucharest National Opera House…
Even though Jonathan Kent’s approach never suggests what I am going to say now, I liked to imagine the strange couple – the young Manon, sent to a convent to calm her hormones, and her too pragmatic brother – as two immigrants from Eastern Europe. Especially because the translation of the action after the XIXth century raises a nearly insurmountable problem: the significance of the deporting to America. Today, you need a visa and a green card to get to New Orleans, and in no case a court sentence. Kent chose the suggestion – the ship captain is transformed into a disgusting character, an alias of Elvis Presley, portraying a kind of trafficker of human beings. The crumbling highway, on top of which takes place the last scene, tries to divert our attention from the American dream, projected as an advertising poster, and manages only partially to make us forget the incongruence. Therefore, I continued to live, sunk in the cinema armchair, a parallel story – that of a young delinquent girl, more or less guilty, deported from France back to her country of origin, where she dies of exhaustion. Doesn’t that seem plausible enough? Then, let’s choose Chechnya, a horrible country, even more horrible for a Des Grieux chevalier of the XXIst century, but a country with people of unnatural physical beauty. Or Yugoslavia, where, a few years ago, I really saw a highway crumbled over a precipice, very similar to the one at the ROH.
Kristīne Opolais was ideal in this part, and, as for her looks, I think she troubled most of the men in the audience. She was a great surprise for me. Especially in La bohème from the Metropolitan, when she stood in, at the last minute, for Anita Hartig. In that performance, she showed a voice full of toughness, not familiar with Mimì’s fragility. But tonight was her night. She nuanced all the vocal details in Manon, and she reminded us of Renata Tebaldi’s self-assurance and beauty of the timbre, or Licia Albanese’s pianissimi, and not at all about her mannerisms. Moreover, she assumed the character imagined by Kent, at the opposite side of the classical representations of powdered wigs, and she almost continuously showed a sex appeal for which I haven’t found an equivalent yet, and not only in Puccini’s opera, but in opera as a genre. Near her, Jonas Kaufmann, with all his charm, had to overcome the very strong impression his partner had made. The discography of Manon Lescaut is full of Latino tenors, combating in ardour, from di Stefano and del Monaco to the triplet Pavarotti-Domingo-Carreras, but it is worth listening to Vasile Moldoveanu in a broadcast from the Met, of an amazing vocal brilliance. A handicap for the German tenor who, as always, played the card of subtlety, with an intelligence that has already become his specificity. The spinning sounds, the half-light in his voice were all extraordinary, and proved his class, but not necessarily the magnetism or the seduction of a Latino tenor. Very rarely, it is true, he seemed to have reached the limit of his vocal abilities, which used to seem limitless (and this proves the difficulty of this part). A Guardate! Pazzo son! by the book, avoiding the bad taste burst of tears, which is, nevertheless, nec plus ultra. But the last act gave him the chance to deliver some intonations that touched me deeply. For example, Manon, senti, amor mio! – so delicate, one could hardly resist it. Cristopher Maltman was very good as Lescaut, a perfect actor, from the vocal point of view he never claimed the forefront of the tenor or of the soprano. Antonio Pappano was Puccini, no surprise here, the colour and the passion that set on fire an orchestra which does not play Manon Lescaut very often were essential for balancing the drama and the music, and reminded us, without ostentation, that, in every single second of this night, we are in an opera theatre. Fabulous.