Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera, 17 June 2014

Royal Opera House

Manon Lescaut – Kristïne Opolais
Lescaut – Christopher Maltman
Chevalier des Grieux – Jonas Kaufmann
Geronte de Revoir – Maurizio Muraro
Edmondo – Benjamin Hulett
Innkeeper –Nigel Cliffe
Singer – Nadezhda Karyazina
Dancing Master – Robert Burt
Lamplighter – Luis Gomes
Sergeant of the Royal Archers – Jihoon Kim
Naval Captain – Jeremy White

Jonathan Kent (director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Mark Henderson (lighting)
Denni Sayers (choreographer)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Westrop)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

A moronic audience and obscenely high ticket prices were not designed to have one in the best of moods. The Royal Opera House should be ashamed of itself for its cynical pricing: I had to pay £51, more than I could really afford, for the most distant reaches of the Upper Amphitheatre, from which it is impossible to see the singers’ fasces, whilst Stalls tickets far exceeded £200. So more should those who, having previously been laughing, shuffling, talking, opening sweets, coughing, sneezing, etc., booed the production team. Jonathan Kent’s staging has all sorts of problems, yes, but such boorish, threatening behaviour has nothing to do with art and suggests the perpetrators would be better off at a football match, of which there seems to be no shortage at the moment.

Indeed, it was tempting to conclude that such people received what they deserved. Having tittered at the surtitles – is it not side-splittingly hilarious that someone should be interested in preserving an emerald or too? – they, needless to say, failed to notice what might have been the virtue of Kent’s production, had it been coherently thought through and presented. Turning the tables on spectators of different varieties, most notably during the filmed ‘show’ of Manon’s antics in the second act, set to a backdrop of sickly pink vulgarity, might have worked in a Katie Mitchell-like manner; it might even have succeeded in indicting those who had turned up for an evening of conspicuous consumption and sentimental refusal to hear something other than ‘lovely tunes’. One might be able to set aside jarring details, such as this modern(-ish) woman having had parents decide to send her to a convent. The problem is that a not uninteresting idea – and I appreciate that this is a generous reading of what we see – utterly collapses following the interval. Suddenly, without warning, and more to the point without discernible agency, we appear to be in a different production altogether. The point – and again I am trying to be generous – may well be that now the audience, having been rendered aware (a fine chance with most of that lot!) of its complicity, should now be more or less conventionally harrowed, but that is not how it comes across. What registers instead are incoherence and ineptitude, increased by designs which seem to have been ‘borrowed’ from Kent’s less than successful Flying Dutchman.

By the time one reaches the fourth act, the production team seems to have given up completely. Not only is it well-nigh impossible, even for the most sympathetic viewer, to consider the cartoon-like presentation with a hint of irony; it is far from clear whether Des Grieux’s failure to bother to find some water, instead just sitting down a few yards away, is deliberate or just an unknowing commentary on what we have been watching. If Kent had had the strength of his (apparent) convictions, had continued to undermine an ‘easy’ reading, perhaps by having Manon fake her death and return to a life of luxury, this would have been worthier of respect; as it stands, one can neither sympathise with the characters nor with the botched attempt at critique of the ‘drama’, such as it is.

With a cast such as this, there are compensations of course, but again, bearing in mind the cynical pricing, that is hardly enough. Jonas Kaufmann sounded at times a little strained in the first act – he would surely be more home as Siegmund, the sort of role in which the ROH never permits us to hear him – but, even from the very back of the house, one could see as well as hear his dramatic presence. The Italianate sobs are not overdone, thank goodness, and one could take dictation from his words and vocal line alike, however softly sung. Much the same, bar the Siegmund observation, could be said of Kristïne Opolais, whose shaping of her lines was every bit as impressive as Kaufmann’s. The voices may not always quite have blended, but they certainly came together powerfully in the fourth act – which would have been far better off in a concert performance. Christopher Maltman’s Italian sometimes seemed a little deliberate, but his was an alert reading of the role of Lescaut, both on stage and in voice. Maurizio Muraro probably had the best of the production in terms of the presentation of Geronte; his was a powerful presence throughout. ‘Supporting’ roles were pretty much all well taken; especial mention might be made of Benjamin Hulett’s finely observed Edmondo. Choral singing was of an equally high standard.

As for Antonio Pappano’s conducting: well, at least it was not his Wagner. Many extol him in Puccini; he certainly seems more at home here than in a great deal of other repertoire. There remains, though, more than a little stiffness, and that same desire to ‘accompany’ rather than to lead. The Wagnerisms of Puccini’s score came through, perhaps ironically, far more strongly than when I had heard the work in Leipzig in April, but, like much of the rest, they seemed isolated rather than properly placed within a greater scheme. Delicacy was more to the fore than passion, let alone a dialectic between them. The orchestra, bar some surprisingly thin string tone at times, played very well, considered in itself, though it was too rarely given its head; I could not help but wonder what a symphonic conductor such as Daniele Gatti, Semyon Bychkov, or Riccardo Muti would have brought to the performance. That said, the most glaring shortcomings were those of the half-baked staging.  This really is not, or at least should not be, the place to present work-in-progress.

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