United Kingdom Massenet, Manon: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Royal Opera House Orchestra/ Emmanuel Villaume (conductor), Royal Opera House, London, 14.1.2014. (JPr)
Manon Lescaut: Ermonela Jaho
Lescaut: Audun Iversen
Chevalier des Grieux: Matthew Polenzani
Le Comte des Grieux: Alastair Miles
Guillot de Morfontaine: Christophe Mortagne
De Brétigny: William Shimell
Poussette: Simona Mihai
Javotte: Rachel Kelly
Rosette: Nadezhda Karyazina
Innkeeper: Lynton Black
Director: Laurent Pelly
Revival Director: Christian Räth
Dramaturg: Agathe Mélinand
Set designs: Chantal Thomas
Costume designs: Laurent Pelly (in collaboration with Jean-Jacques Delmotte)
Lighting design: Joël Adam
Choreography: Lionel Hoche
The centenary of Massenet’s death in 1912 passed largely unnoticed in this country … and many others I suspect apart from France! He was born in 1842 and when only 9 was accepted by the Conservatoire de Paris, where he was taught counterpoint by Ambroise Thomas, who was to be an important influence throughout his life. To support himself during his studies he was a timpanist for six years at the Théâtre Lyrique, and elsewhere, and also played the piano in the Café de Belleville. Although initially some of his teachers thought it unlikely he would have a career in music, this changed in 1863, when he won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata David Rizzio. During his stay in the Italian capital at the Villa Médicis composed a collection of melodies Poèmes d’avril, a Requiem and Suites symphoniques, and met Liszt, as well as, his future wife. In 1867 he composed La grand’ tante, a one act comic opera that revealed a talent for the lyric art. After serving as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War he returned to composing and from 1873, after creating a religious drama, Marie-Magdeleine, at the Concerts Colonne, his work concentrated on opera, with Don César de Bazan, followed by Roi Lahore, and Hérodiade (1881). Three years later, the Opéra-Comique – where he was a favourite – premièred Manon on 19 January 1884, which became one of the most popular French operas, after Bizet’s Carmen, with which it shares some similarities, especially as a type of sentimental and passionate theatre that the public adored. For the same reasons, his Werther, staged at the Opera of the Court of Vienna in 1892, was another big success.
Massenet was an heir of Gounod who had taken on board some of the musical ideas instigated by Wagner. Massenet composed 25 operas, amongst them Thaïs (1894) – whose symphonic intermezzo lives on as a familiar concert piece – and Don Quichotte (1910). But it is only Manon and Werther that are regularly put on today. Manon was hailed as a French work that could truly match Verdi’s versimo operas and Wagner’s music dramas. However even now it is overshadowed by Puccini’s even more popular 1893 version of Abbé Prévost’s original novel (L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut).
So Massenet’s Manon just about hangs on to its place in the standard repertory, even though, the tale of an alluring young girl from a small town with a fatal attraction to riches and pleasures ….. and reaping what she sowed – has long been an irresistible vehicle for audiences, composers and singers, often star sopranos! Manon is a problematic work as it has the ‘heroine’ centre stage for most of the opera and ‘celebrates’ her passion not only for Des Grieux but also for a life of luxury. Massenet and his librettists make the story less bleak than it is in the original novel and what we have is two very busy outdoor scenes, a church scene, a tense gambling one, and an – almost obligatory – ballet divertissement.
The ‘problem’ with Manon cannot be solved by me as it is part-operetta and spends well over two hours getting Des Grieux and Manon together, separating them and then passionately reuniting them. Then with a pastiche of Verdi as Act IV and a final act that must have inspired Puccini it propels the story of the lovers to its sad conclusion in a mere 45 minutes. Don’t get me wrong; I thought this was a very good evening but it was hard at the end to connected with the plight of Manon and Des Grieux (despite wonderfully impassioned singing from Ermonela Jaho and Matthew Polenzani) because their end came so quickly.
The director of this 2010 production can also do nothing about the flaws and does wonders bringing us an enjoyable evening set during the Belle Époque, the time when the opera was composed. The programme’s ‘Opera Essentials’ explained ‘This was an era when many courtesans thrived but also one in which a high proportion of men viewed independent women with hostility and suspicion. For Pelly, Manon is both a victim and a manipulator of men.’ Chantal Thomas provides rather abstract sets, with their askew floors and angles and a final wonderful perspective for the seafront at Le Havre.
As crisply revived by Christian Räth, in Act I we meet Guillot, a lascivious, elderly nobleman (an energetic, well characterised performance by Christophe Mortagne) and the wealthy De Brétigny (the stolid William Shimell), arriving in the courtyard of an inn in Amiens, escorting three lively, hard-to-handle ‘no better than they should be’ young women (wonderful vignettes from Jette Parker Young Artists past and present, Simona Mihai, Rachel Kelly and Nadezhda Karyazina) The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by tall walls, and a large stairway at the back leads to an upper level, where miniature buildings suggest distant streets. There is no hint of a coach to be seen, and starting with this scene – and recurring throughout this production – there is too much rushing up and down stairs which occasionally tests the singer’s stamina.
Manon is destined for a convent because her parents are disturbed by her fondness of luxuries and frivolity. Ermonela Jaho is great as the lively, if slightly gawky, teenage Manon, who is dowdily dressed and looks a lot like Leslie Caron as the young Gigi. Matthew Polenzani is equally very believable as the infatuated Chevalier des Grieux, the feckless youth who falls in love rather too swiftly when he sets eyes on Manon and persuades her to run off with him. Pelly and Thomas provide an intimate garret for their Paris sojourn in Act II but Des Grieux’s abduction by his father is rather risibly handled. The first scene of Act III takes place with the demimonde promenading (there are lots of top hats and bustles) at the Cours-la-Reine in Paris. For some reason there is a rather restrictive zigzagging ramp (for wheelchairs?) with metal railings and Manon, having abandoned Des Grieux, arrives on the arm of De Brétigny, in an extravagant feathered hat and gown. When Guillot presents a small ballet troupe for Manon’s entertainment, the eight dancers here have to perform on that ramp. At the end, some of the leering ‘gentlemen’ watching fling these Degas ballerinas over their shoulders and carry them off. (Sometimes you just have to stop thinking too much but I did find this a little disconcerting as we were already watching an opera about a promiscuous girl who was ‘just sixteen’ and the British media was full of reports that day of the alleged predatory sexual ‘activities’ of the powerful TV personalities!)
Having heard that Des Grieux, distraught over Manon’s rejection, is himself seeking solace in religion and is to become a priest, she rushes to the seminary of St Sulpice to win him back. In the vestry of the church is a small, metal bed on which at the climax of the seduction scene, Ms Jaho’s writhing Manon rips open his vestment and pulls him on top of her – and just in time the curtain falls! After this the last two acts are rather an anti-climax!
There are some inspired arias in Massenet’s score, especially for Manon. A soprano is given a near-impossible task as she must launch straight into an exuberant Je suis encor’ tout étourdie in Act I that Ermonela Jaho overcomes with aplomb. The Albanian singer does not have the brightest of sounds that some might prefer and her singing has a distinct dusky east-European quality to it, however when necessary, she sang melting phrases with smooth legato and great beauty, such as in her deep heartfelt performance of Adieu, notre petite table as she bids farewell to her life with Des Grieux in Act II. She has soaring top notes and a reliable coloratura technique, dispatching the runs and roulades without apparent undue stress. I didn’t entirely believe in her character’s sexual allure, yet apart from that, she had great charisma and was very engaging – in fact, very much like a miniaturised Angela Gheorghiu.
Matthew Polenzani acquitted himself well as Des Grieux; he is a singer I would be happy to see more often at Covent Garden than his American compatriot Bryan Hymel because he is a better actor. His eloquent voice was virile and secure throughout its entire range and a highlight of his performance was a honeyed account of the aria En fermant les yeux in which Des Grieux relates his dreams of their idyllic future wedded bliss, which had exquisite high pianissimos. I heard mutterings about the couple’s sexual chemistry – and that they were not Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo who apparently were ‘red hot’ when this production was first put on at Covent Garden in 2010 – but I totally believed in their mutual attraction from their first moments on stage together.
The role of Lescaut is rather underwritten and Audun Iversen, in general, made the robust best of what there is despite not having much personality – but that might be purely Massenet’s fault. Here he is not Manon’s pimping brother as in the original novel but rather a bit of a nondescript ‘loser’ – especially in the gambling sense! Alastair Miles was at his most dourly authoritative as Le Comte des Grieux, the young Des Grieux’s father.
Much credit for the enjoyment I got from this evening (only my third ever Manon I have seen) was from Emmanuel Villaume’s splendidly idiomatic conducting and together with his orchestra – who played excellently for him – it was a stylish, flexible, fresh-sounding performance of the score. There was always an impulsive forward momentum and there was no hint that he was merely indulging his singers which happens too often in opera these days. This Manon is a co-production between the Royal Opera House and the Met (where it was recently put on), La Scala and Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse. I highly recommend it and catch it if you can in this run or elsewhere.
For more information about this Manon and other future performances at Covent Garden visit www.roh.org.uk.