Massenet: Manon

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 23rd January 2014 3.5 stars

The table has a special place in western cultural practice. It is a place to perform one of life's critical functions as well as trivial ones; to entertain friends and family; to remember. In modern times its relevance as a bond holding people together is slowly lessening, but as an cultural image it remains a powerful force in collective memory and experience: remembering the table, the moments shared (or not) around it, or something as simple as the satisfaction from a good meal still evoke powerful responses. This was true even for Massenet's Manon, whose most famous aria is on the surface a exercise in saying goodbye her table—reminiscent of Mimi asking for a muff as she dies. But of course, like Mimi, Manon is really remembering, living in a moment trapped in her memory and vivified through music that with the best conductors has a mind of its own. The Royal Opera has brought Laurent Pelly's production back for the second time and, like Manon, is not what it appears to be on the surface.

The set was typical of Chantal Thomas, who has frequently collaborated with Laurent Pelly, most recently at Covent Garden on Robert le diable. Is it a penchant for the two dimensional? A stick-figure fetish? Who knows but like her designs for Robert, this Manon left me feeling more like I was in the époque terrible rather than the belle époque. Cardboard cut-outs once again graced the stage against a backdrop of greys for an on-the- whole surrealist and unenchanting feel. While the sets may not have been aesthetically pleasing, they certainly had great significance aesthetically: they were, as the man sitting next to me put it, "horribly ugly," providing a poignant backdrop to the escapades of beautiful Manon, who's limited scale of movements were often juxtaposed against them.

Although Manon specifically had the range of movement of a robot prototype, the revival director Christian Räth used the stage space very efficiently and was not afraid to demand bold movement from the singers. I was slightly dismayed at the choreography of Lionel Hoche, especially during the ballet. Taken in tandem with the difficult interpolations of rape audiences witnessed in the Royal Opera's new production of Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes, one must wonder who has the grudge against ballerinas in the company. Coupled with Pelly's costume designs, when taken together as a whole the production's individual elements—though at first they may seem lacking on their own merits—make sense, and evoke a Manon trapped deeper by her amorality every day: a beautiful, ambitious, and naïve woman who selfishly struggles through male-dominated social strata only to be killed by her own missteps (and a healthy dose of melodrama).

Emmanuel Villaume brought a vivaciousness to Massenet's music that is rarely heard: one truly could have believed the music had a life of its own. The dynamic range was a bit short however, save right at the end, when the orchestra burst into triple forte as Manon expired. What a moment. Still, one wished that Villaume—to be fair, most conductors these days—would be bolder with their use of striking changes in dynamics.

Villaume did support the singers extraordinarily well; a good thing too, considering the unbelievable colours produced by Ermonela Jaho. The Albanian soprano shapes her phrases supplely whilst shading her voice perfectly to the demands of the music; the innocence practically seeped out of her in Act I, only to grow into a sharp edged sound as the opera continued: a perfectly executed vocal metaphor for the transition of Manon's character as she grows older. It's really something that needs to be heard. Her famous, "Adieu, notre petite table" was a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by the ambitious, and her Act II gavotte was likewise a showpiece that will not be forgotten, her wayward pitch at the top of her voice notwithstanding.

The Des Grieux of Matthew Polenzani was equally matched to Jaho's subtle vocalisms, and the two had extremely good chemistry particularly in their Act III duet. Polenzani has come a long way since I last heard him; I hardly recognized his voice, which has grown considerably into a much heavier sound. This is perfectly suited to the demands of the role, however, and coupled with his talent for bringing drama to life worked well. His Act III aria was a polished piece of heartfelt pain, but, more than that, Polenzani nailed every note right in the centre of the pitch—actually not as common as one might expect.

As his cold and wantonly protective father, Alastair Miles gave a robust vocal performance, if only somewhat dramatically stunted. The Lescaut of Audun Iversen was vocally unsure at first but charming by Act III and secure by Act IV, whilst the Guillot of Christophe Mortagne was a source of much amusement. The only truly unenjoyably part of the evening was the Royal Opera Chorus, who as a whole were seemingly unblended (individual voices everywhere) and imprecise (said voices coming in at the wrong times or singing behind the beat).

On the whole, however, the Royal Opera's Manon is a great night not to be missed—full of beautiful singing, heartfelt emotions, and a rare bit of operatic humor. Make sure you gather round a table with those closest to you to discuss it—Manon never had the chance.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Royal Opera House