Saturday 28 June 2014

Puccini - Manon Lescaut (Royal Opera House 2014 - Cinema Live)

Giacomo Puccini - Manon Lescaut

Royal Opera House, London - 2014

Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Kristīne Opolais, Christopher Maltman, Jonas Kaufmann, Maurizio Muraro, Benjamin Hulett, Robert Burt, Nadezhda Karyazina, Luis Gomes, Jeremy White, Jihoon Kim, Nigel Cliffe

Royal Opera House Cinema Live - 24 June 2014

While there isn't much hope for Le Villi and Edgar, there has at least been a concerted effort in recent years to bring another of Puccini's earliest works into the mainstream opera repertoire with numerous productions worldwide of Manon Lescaut. Puccini's first major success, the reasons for Manon Lescaut's neglect are a bit of a mystery. Antonio Pappano makes a strong case for the dramatic quality of the opera, the power of its dramatic score and the beauty of its melodies. The director of the Royal Opera House Kasper Holten suggests that it could be because it needs at least two world-class singers in the main roles, but that's also the case for La Bohème and Tosca. With Pappano conducting then and two major stars - Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais - in place and on fire for the Royal Opera House's season-closing live cinema broadcast, you would think that this new production would be a revelatory affirmation of the worth of Manon Lescaut, yet by the end of the evening, doubts about the work remain.

It seems obvious then to point the finger of blame - as many critics have been quick to do - at director Jonathan Kent, but while it is indeed difficult to follow where exactly the director is taking the story in the sets for Acts III and IV, the tone and line of the production is firmly on the side of the drama and the emotional journey of the two lovers. It's too easy to blame the production just for being modern - if the opera can't stand up to being placed in a modern context then it might well indeed be an old-fashioned work that has little to offer a modern audience and its relative obscurity is probably merited. Mariuz Treliński had a fair go at it in La Monnaie's 2013 production, so that doesn't seem to be the whole story with Manon Lescaut.

There are certain elements of L'Abbé Prévost’s original novel 'L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut' that are perhaps a little out of place. You'd have a bit of trouble trying to force your sister into a convent nowadays, as Lescaut intends to do here with Manon. Accepting instead an offer to selling her off to a old rich man and then into prostitution is a bit of a change of heart for Lescaut and perhaps not that a common experience that many will identify with either. The way that that this separates the young woman from the ability to make her own choices however and love the young man she chooses - the Chevalier des Grieux - has timeless resonance and, most importantly, real conflicts between the heart and material desires. Certainly none of these issues have prevented the subject from reaching modern audiences in Massenet's popular and enduring Manon.

None of it has been any obstacle either for Puccini doing much the same thing in making Mimi's dilemma - again, one that remains tied very much to the times and morals of the period - the successful and heartbreaking heroine of the romantic tragedy of La Bohème. It's clear then that this is not the issue with Manon Lescaut, or at least not the main issue. There are however certain leaps and gaps in Puccini's version of Manon Lescaut that flow less well dramatically than Massenet's version, leaving out a lot of important details. Most critically, Massenet's choice to end the work with the death of Manon at the boarding of her ship as she is being deported to America spares us what amounts to an extended death scene that lasts the entirety of Act IV in Puccini's version where Manon and Des Grieux find themselves for some unexplained reason dying of thirst and starvation in the Utah desert.

There's not an awful lot that a stage director can do to make that fit with the rest of the work. The earlier scenes may take a rather sleazy modern approach to Manon's downfall - the young woman becoming a porn-star performing for a live audience rather than a dancer - but this gives exactly the right impression of how sordid the enterprise is. Glamour is of course part of Manon's ambitions, part of the unresolved conflict that keeps the young woman from simply following her heart, but you ought to make you feel uncomfortable at how she is being exploited and that is done well. The stylised deportation of Manon and the prostitutes along a gaming table and through a poster inscribed 'Naïveté' in Act III, coming out on a crumbling road that twists towards the upper heights of the stage in Act IV (the other side of the poster forming a desert backdrop) is however as baffling as the dramatic development itself, but it at least looks great. It doesn't however in any way undermine or reduce the emotional impact of how the scene is written or how Puccini scores it.

But yet it's hard to imagine that any of this provoking a single wet eye in the house. With Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann both in superb form throughout belting out the agony of their character's dilemma, Manon coming to regret the path that has left her "sola, perduta, abbandonata"; with Antonio Pappano sensitively wringing every ounce of drama and emotion out Puccini's exquisitely beautiful and heart wrenching score; with the on-screen film direction taking us into cinematic extreme close-up in a way that both Opolais and Kaufmann can sustain dramatically as well as aesthetically; you really ought to be a quivering wreck at the end of Manon Lescaut. If that much effort is put into it however and it fails to make the necessary impact, something is very wrong. Perhaps it's all just too much.

It's not too much on the part of the singers, the director or the conductor - they are just performing what Puccini has written the way he intends it to be played - it's just that it's musically overwrought without there being enough genuine character and dramatic development put into making the audience really care for the characters. It's not necessarily that Manon is a bit of a gold-digger - Mimi is fairly mercenary in her attachments in La Bohème and we care infinitely more about her sad and lonely death - but Puccini and his numerous librettists haven't put the necessary work into establishing the romance between Manon and Des Grieux as something credible. It's significant to note that Puccini has no equivalent for the second act in Massenet's Manon showing their humble but happy home in Paris with its little table, albeit a short-lived happiness where the relationship is already in trouble. We don't really get much of an opportunity to see Manon and Des Grieux together in Manon Lescaut, and when we do in Act IV, it's too much too late.