First thoughts on Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House. Genius Kristine Opolais, genius Pappano, and Kaufmann genius after the first Act. This production is so powerful that it's bound to shock. But why not? If we aren't horrified by what happens to women like Manon Lescaut, the fault lies with us. Anyone who can't be moved by that final scene must have cement for blood. My full review is HERE. - Provocative but Werktreue - Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House
Why is the production controversial? Puccini's Manon Lescaut hasn't been seen at the Royal Opera House for 30 years, so Londoners are probably much more familiar with Massenet's Manon, revived at least twice in the last 5 years. But they are radically different operas. Mix them up and you've got problems. In Massenet, Manon and Des Grieux have a love nest in a garret. No wonder those familiar with Manon expect Manon Lescaut to be similarly romantic. But Puccini is not sentimental. He goes straight to Geronte's mansion and to the sordid business of sex and money. Anyone who's shocked ought to read the score, instead of imposing their own expectations.
Geronte thinks he's an artist. Because he thinks he owns Manon, so he uses her as a canvas to act out his fantasies. Jonathan Kent isn't making this up. Read the score. One minute Manon is in her boudoir, putting on makeup, talking to her brother. Next minute, musicians pour in and the have to be shooed out. Then Geronte fa cenno agli amici di tirarsi in disparte e di sedersi. Durante il ballo alcuni servi girano portando cioccolata e rinfreschi. (Geronte beckons to friends to stand on the sidelines and sit. During the dance some servos are bringing chocolate and refreshments). The guests know that Manon sleeps with Geronte. They have come in order to be titillated. It's not the dancing they've come to admire. They're pervs. Geronte is showing off, letting his pals know what a catch Manon is. Hence the dancing: a physical activity that predicates on the body and the poses a body can be forced into "Tutta la vostra personcina,or s'avanzi! Cosi!... lo vi scongiuro" sings the Dancing master. But he has no illusions. "...a tempo!", he sings, pointing out quite explicitly that her talents do not include dance. "Dancing is a serious matter!" he says, in exasperation. But the audience don't care about dancing. They've come to gape at Manon. There's nothing romantic in this. Geronte is a creep who exploits women. It's an 18th century live sex show. Geronte's parading his pet animal.
So Manon concurs? So many vulnerable women get caught up in the sick game, for whatever reason. The love scene that follows , between Opolais and Kaufmann is all the morer magical because we've seen the brutality Manon endured to win her jewels. Perhaps we also feel (at least I did) some sympathy for Manon's materialistic little soul. She knows that money buys a kind of freedom.When news of Mark Anthony Turnage's commission for Anna Nicole first emerged, some were surprised. Others said "Manon Lescaut". The story goes on an on.
At first I couldn't understand what the film crew and lighting booms meant but I think they suggest the way every society exploits women and treats them as objects for gratification. Later, the lighting booms close down like prison bars. Some of the women being transported are hard cases but others are women who've fallen into bad situations, but are equally condemned. Far from being sexist, this production addresses something universal and very present about society. I'm still not sure about the giant billboard "Naiveté" but there is no law that says we have to get every detail at once. Perhaps Kent is connecting to advertising images and popular media. Suddenly the billboard reverses and we see behind the facade. By the way, there are no deserts near New Orleans, so anyone screaming for "realism" should remember that opera is art. Manon and Des Grieux are in a metaphorical desert, literally at the end of the road. I'm still reeling with emotion at that last image of Opolais and Kaufmann suspended in mid air, "orizzonte vastissimo, cielo annuvolato". Only boors could boo after that.
People wail about "trusting the composer". But it is they who don't trust the composer. Any decent opera can inspire so much in so many. No-one owns the copyright on interpretation. But the booing mob don't permit anyone else to have an opinion and insist on forcing their own on others who might be trying to engage more deeply. It's time, I think, to call the bluff on booers. They don't actually care about opera. Like Geronte, they're into control.
Review to follow in Opera Today
photo : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House (details embedded)