Royal Opera’s Manon Lescaut Benefits from Pappano’s Masterly Conducting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Manon Lescaut: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 22.11.2016. (CC)

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Des Grieux) & Sondra Radvanovsky (Manon Lescaut) (c) Bill Cooper

Manon Lescaut – Sondra Radvanovsky
Lescaut – Levente Molnár
Chevalier des Grieux – Aleksandrs Antonenko
Geronte de Ravoir – Eric Halfvarson
Edmondo – Luis Gomes
Dancing Master – Aled Hall
Singer – Emily Edmonds
Lamplighter – David Jihoon Kim
Naval Captain – Jeremy White
Sergeant – David Shipley
Innkeeper – Thomas Bernard
Naval Captain – Nicholas Crawley

Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Paul Higgins
Designs – Paul Brown
Lighting design – Mark Henderson
Choreographer – Denni Sayers

This isn’t the only high-profile Manon Lescaut on this rather troubled planet at the moment. Over at the Met in New York, Anna Netrebko and Kristīne Opolais  share the title role (Opolais was the Manon in the 2014 outing at the Garden opposite Jonas Kaufmann: see Jim Pritchard’s review here). It is good to see this magnificently lyrical score in such lush colours as Pappano gleaned from the orchestra on this, the first night of the first revival run of Jonathan Kent’s production, revived by Paul Higgins – and astonishingly only the opera’s 48th performance at the Royal Opera.

The story of Manon Lescaut as experienced in the Puccini version (it had to use the full name due to Massenet’s opera Manon) spans over four acts that move forward in time with vast temporal gaps between each. We the audience are left to fill in those gaps …. or simply to accept the sudden new surroundings. Puccini’s opera is based on L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, a 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost. There is no chance of eighteenth century Paris here, though as Jonathan Kent’s production moves from anonymous apartment blocks (there’s also an SUV that makes an appearance) through the pornography of Manon’s dance (“televised” and watched by a row of bald, anonymous dirty old men with their back to the audience all wearing masks) through to the shameless, gaudy shaming of the prostitutes in Act III, which appears to double as some sort of reality TV show eviction. (Given that at the opening Manon is on her way to a convent, maybe it was Big Sister!). The final act is set on a stretch of motorway that is cruelly hewn to reveal a sharp drop to the stage, presumably to reflect the cruel cut-off of Manon’s life itself. There is a lot going on on-stage, not least in the first act, where the stage is split between the apartment block and a gambling den/casino, but too much of it seemed trickery for trickery’s sake. The dehumanizing act of prostitution itself is mirrored literally in the masked voyeurs and generally in the production overall. It is difficult to feel much resonance for Manon here; the production paints in bright, garish colours and broad brush strokes. There is little room for subtlety.

Before we get to the singing, perhaps it is appropriate to praise the glory of the evening: the orchestra under the masterly direction of Sir Antonio Pappano. This really is Pappano’s home turf, he just has an instinctual feeling for the rise and fall of Puccini’s long, lyrical lines. He balances the orchestra superbly (no easy feat) and it is clear they give their all for him; the frothy opening of the work was splendidly on the ball. The dynamic range of the orchestral contribution, too, is noteworthy: Pappano finds complexity and sophistication in a score not always honoured for those qualities. And nowhere were those qualities more evident than in the passionate performance of the Intermezzo between Acts II and III. Impassioned par excellence yet impeccably musical throughout, it seemed the epitome of Pappano’s highest qualities in this music.

The American/Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has previously tackled the title role for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. She has the power for the role, and saved her most telling acting (physically and vocally) for her final cries of “Sola, perduta, abbandonatta” in the fourth and final act, her death touching our hearts as it should, Radvanovsky thinning her expiring voice with skill. Her Chevalier Des Grieux was Latvian tenor Alexandrs Antonenko, whose voice had the strength when required but who was also able of the most beautiful expression: his honeyed “Tra voi belle, brune e bionde” a case in point. The famous “Donna non vidi mai” was one of the highlights of the evening. His voice is not uniformly lovely, which in the present instance made his character all the more human and believable. The Act II love duet, so perfectly Puccini in its impassioned octaves for the lovers, showed how well-chosen the pairing of principals was here.

As the elderly Geronte de Revoir, the American bass Eric Halfvarson triumphed, convincing all in the second act of his true position as low-life. His voice as full, his diction perfect, his dramatic presence entirely convincing. Manon’s brother, Lescaut, was effectively taken by Hungarian baritone Levente Molnár. Since his ROH debut in 2008 (Masetto Don Giovanni) has has returned for Belcore (L’elisir) and Marcello (La bohème). Rightly so, clearly, as his projection of douchebag sleaze was eminently convincing. Of the smaller roles (despite its cast list, the opera is dominated by just a few parts), it was Jette Parker alumnus, the Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes, who since leaving the scheme has only appeared as Gastone and Lover in Il tabarro for Covent Garden, who impressed. He has the honour of opening the opera, singing on the pleasures of youth and impressed with his strong voice and force of character.

The evening works as more than the sum of its parts, interestingly. The production certainly has its quirks; some will inevitably have missed Kaufmann, who took Des Grieux the first time round for this production. Yet Pappano’s grasp of the score makes the evening. In his hands, one really appreciates Puccini’s masterly pacing of the unfoldment of the drama.

Colin Clarke

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