Saturday, 10 July 2010

Manon - Royal Opera House, Wednesday 7th July 2010

In the courtyard of an inn, a crowd awaits arrival of the coach. Guillot, an elderly roué, and his wealthy friend Brétigny have ordered dinner for three actresses of easy virtue, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette; as they retire to a room, a young officer, Lescaut, comes to meet his cousin Manon from the coach, who is on her way to a convent. While he looks after her luggage, Guillot notices her and flirts with her, but she only laughs at the elderly man's advances. Lescaut returns, and before joining friends at a gaming table he warns Manon about talking to strangers. To herself, she wistfully compares her own bland future with the pleasure-filled life of Guillot and his glamorous companions. The Chevalier Des Greiux arrives at the inn and, on seeing Manon, falls in love with her. Seizing this opportunity to escape the convent, Manon suggests that they run off to Paris in Guillot's coach. The tipsy old bon vivant, who had intended to abduct Manon himself, stumbles from the inn just in time to hurl curses after the escaping lovers.

In their Paris apartment, Manon and Des Grieux read a letter he has written to his father describing his sweetheart and asking permission to marry her. When Des Grieux notices a bouquet of flowers Brétigny has sent to Manon, she tells him a lie to allay his suspicions of her loyalty. Lescaut and Brétigny arrive, the former to demand that Des Grieux marry Manon, the latter to tell the girl that Des Grieux is soon to be kidnapped by his irate father. The visitors depart, and Des Grieux goes off to send his letter. Left alone, Manon is unable to resist the temptation of luxury offered her by Brétigny and bids a poignant farewell to the life she has shared with Des Grieux. The young man returns, relating an idyllic vision of their future life together, but officers suddenly force their way into the room and abduct him.

A holiday crowd fills a park at the Cours-la-Reine, where Poussette, Javotte and Rosette have eluded Guillot. Lescaut sentimentally addresses a pretty passerby as his beloved "Rosalinde," then generously offers her presents from the vendors' carts. Manon, surrounded by wealthy admirers, preens herself and sings a gavotte in praise of youth and pleasure. When Des Grieux' father, the Count, speaks with Brétigny, Manon overhears their conversation, learning that Des Grieux is about to take holy orders at the Church of St. Sulpice. She herself speaks to the Count and is piqued to hear that her former lover has grown cold to her charms. Manon rushes to St. Sulpice.

In the sacristy, some women describe the eloquence of the new abbé. Skeptical of his son's new virtue, the Count tries to persuade Des Grieux to abandon the church and marry a suitable girl. After the father leaves, Des Grieux prays for the strength to resist the memory of Manon. But Manon arrives, breaks his resolve with her ardor and persuades him to run away with her.

The Hôtel de Transylvanie, a notorious gambling house, is crowded with merrymakers, including Lescaut, Guillot and the three actresses. When Des Grieux arrives with Manon, she suggests that he recoup their sagging fortunes at the faro table. As the young man plays cards with Guillot, Manon and the actresses sing in praise of living for the moment. Guillot, losing every hand, accuses Des Grieux of cheating and goes off to summon the police; the authorities soon arrive and with them the Count Des Grieux, who rebukes his son but promises him that his arrest will be only temporary. Manon swoons as he is taken away.

Manon is to be deported to Louisiana on charges of immorality. On the road to Le Havre, Des Grieux and Lescaut bribe the guards to release her. Manon, in the last stages of consumption, falls exhausted in her lover's arms. Des Grieux, though despairing, comforts her as, murmuring of their lost happiness, she dies.
Guillot - Guy de Mey
De Bretigny - William Shimmel
Pousette - Simona Miha
Javotte - Louise Innes
Rosette- Kai Ruutel
Lescaut - Russell Braun
Manon - Anna Netrebko
De Grieux - Vittorio Grigolo
Comte de Grieux - Christof Fishchesser

Creative Team:
Music: Jules Massenet
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: Laurent Pelly
Set: Chantal Thomas
Costumes: Laurent Pelly
Lighting: Joel Adam

As my regular readers will know, I would usually gouge my eyes out with blunt spoons than sit through an evening of opera. But one opera singer I would gladly walk across broken glass in my bare feet to hear is the gorgeous, sexy Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, which I suppose just goes to show that I'm as subject to the thrall of celebrity as everyone else in this fair land of ours. Finally, I think I understand why ordinary people go absolutely bananas about a particular star. Because let's face it, the woman is pure, unadulterated class. I first came across her during an enforced viewing of Bellini's I Puritani on DVD. "Wow", I thought, "finally here's a soprano who is beautiful, the right age for once and who can actually act". And then she opened her mouth and out poured the most glorious sound I'd ever heard come out of a human throat. Towards the end, in the "Madness aria" she laid on her back with her head dangling over the edge of the orchestra pit and sang one of the most difficult colaratura ("lots of twiddly bits") arias in the entire operatic repertoire (the YouTube of this is at the bottom of the review if you want to be amazed). I was completely smitten. And then I saw a documentary about her early career in which she explained that her family had been too poor to send her to singing lessons, so she took a job as a cleaner in one of the great opera houses so she could listen to the great stars rehearse while she worked, by the end of which I was ready to renounce my homosexuality and become Mr. Netrebko if she would have me. So when word leaked out that she was coming to the Royal Opera House to sing the title role in Manon I grabbed Him Indoors by the scruff of the neck and said "Get tickets NOW". "But", he wheezed, "you hate opera". "I'd sell my grandmother to hear Anna Netrebko singing Three Blind fucking Mice" I replied, "flash that plastic or you'll be dead by nightfall" - which I thought was a suitably operatic threat.

So it was a shame that the production wasn't really up to much, for all that the critics have slobbered over it. I can only assume that they scored the singing and the music rather than the production itself, which is frankly a bit of a mess. The setting is unfocussed (for which read "all over the place"), the scenery grim and the lighting the worst I have ever seen (or not seen, in this case). The inn of Act 1 looks more like the Bastille, and the costumes in this act are very early 1900's, with Ms. Netrebko fetchingly decked out like Gigi. The garrett of Act 2 could be from a 70's version of La Boheme with the tenor more or less rigged out as Tony from West Side Story in black slacks and a modern vest (presumably in order to show off his biceps and very fine shoulders....). We're back to Edwardian frou-frou for Act 3, although the set is more or less modern. God only knows where (or when) the gaming club in Act 4 is meant to be but its got fluorescent strip lighting and is probably the ugliest set I've ever seen - so cramped and vertiginous that it looks like something from the worst excessess of Dr. Seuss and the poor chorus have to cling on to each other to get past one another on its cramped levels. And Act 5 is a dreary, modernist fishing port, with the sky completely wreathed in cloud (although its clearly mentioned in the libretto that the evening star is visible). Little use is made of the chorus throughout and there are some majorly wasted opportunities for chorus movement. The lighting is patchy at best, leaving big gloomy spots on the stage through which you can see nothing - at one point, you can see Ms. Netrebko's feet very well but nothing upward of her knees, pretty though they are.

There's the added disappointment that, after the first interval, an announcement is made from the stage that Ms. Netrebko is not feeling well (huge groans from all round the auditorium) but will try her best to complete the performance, so the evening is given a will she, won't she frisson of excitement which makes up for what pains me to say is noticeably wobbly singing from La Diva in a couple of places. At the curtain call its the tenor, Vittorio Grigolo, who gets the lion's share of the applause for an amazing vocal performance. Netrebko retires with full honours to her dressing room, and I silently pledge to see her in a decent production one day, with proper lighting, a decent set and her in a big crinoline covered in sparkly bits.

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