Abducted by Love
MANON LESCAUT, opera in 4 acts, musical score composed by Giacomo Puccini, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, The Royal Opera House, 22 November 2016. First revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production. Reviewed by Leslie Jones
Manon Lescaut, by Giacamo Puccini, was first performed in 1893, in Turin. Its subject matter is the age old struggle between materialism and idealism, as my perceptive Italian colleague Alessandro Zummo, of www.playstosee.com, pointed out. Manon, the eponymous courtesan of the title, portrayed on this occasion by the outstanding soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who deservedly received several spontaneous rounds of applause, is irresistibly drawn to romantic love but also fatally attracted to luxury. The former is represented by a student, the Chevalier des Grieux, played by tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko: the latter by the aging libertine and distributor of tax concessions, Geronte de Revoir (bass Eric Halfvarson). Manon’s ambivalence leads her initially to run away with Des Grieux but she subsequently plumps for Geronte, who sets Manon up in style in Paris, with fatal consequences.
The sets, designed by Paul Brown, were uniformly outstanding, ranging from the art deco inn of the first act to the broken flyover that terminates in mid-air of act 4, in a post apocalyptic landscape reminiscent of The Road. Likewise, in act 2, Manon’s gilded Parisian cage is brilliantly depicted, with a massive chandelier, opulent furniture and drapes.
In an informative essay in the official programme, ‘Giacomo Puccini; New Kid on the Block’, the music scholar Helen M Greenwald reminds us that Julian Budden regarded Puccini as Wagner’s “best pupil”. The prelude to Act 3, brilliantly worked by maestro Pappano, with its affecting leitmotif, is particularly indicative here.
At this juncture, just one minor criticism. The producer Jonathan Kent arguably over egged his feminist take on Manon Lescaut. Women, in this production, are almost always depicted as mere meat or as commodities. In one scene, segmented staging reveals sex workers advertising their wares in the windows of a brothel. In act 2, ageing voyeurs sit in a semi circle gawping at Manon, done up like a barbie doll, apparently participating in the making of a porn film. Sexism and bourgeois hypocrisy abound. Again, in act 3, Manon and her fellow (female) prostitutes are summoned in a roll call before a baying crowd, prior to their deportation to America, in a scenario reminiscent of a TV game show. Ageism, however, is evidently still acceptable.
There are, to state the obvious, very dark moments in several of Puccini’s operas – the execution of Cavaradossi, Tosca’s suicide and the deaths of Mimi and Madama Butterfly, come to mind. But nothing quite matches the unrelenting gloom of the final act of Manon Lescaut, when the heroine dies in despair in the Louisiana desert, in what is possibly the longest death scene in opera. “Misery will never cease”, as Van Gogh once remarked.
Leslie Jones is the editor of Quarterly Review