Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Jonathan Kent's Manon Lescaut

The view from B-68 
Stepping out of the Royal Opera House, my fellow opera-goers seemed to heave a great sigh - some out of satisfaction, some more bemused and others completely irate. For a performance graced with such powerful and unadulterated vocal talent, very little of the discussion focussed on that aspect (although everyone had to find at least a few superlatives for Jonas Kaufmann). Rather, the crowd making their way to the tube station seemed increasingly occupied in trying to find some sort of common consensus for Jonathan Kent's ambitious production. With the Covent Garden crowd having a reputation for being something of traditionalists, the dramatically brassy sets caused a stir - the most obvious problem being Act II, in which instead of dancing a Minuet, Kent's Manon preens through some form of lap dance, most of which is done spread-legged on a mountain of hot pink cushions, while being filmed. The description alone sounds like something out of Katie Price's many variety shows, and the overall effect did little to dispel that conception. Placed in an odd glass/plastic box, Opolais was the very image of the next season of TOWIE. It was unapologetically garish, vulgar in a way that would send feminists into prolonged fits of apoplectic rage - but it certainly did a good job of unsettling the audience. By styling Manon as a courtesan of this age, modelled on nearly every WAG that has 'written' an expose of an autobiography, Kent raised some uncomfortable questions. Grumbles of misogyny and tastelessness could be readily heard during the interval - but even the original Puccini production intended Act II to be chauvinistic and discriminative. It enacts a certain power play between man and woman.  Manon, in any of her operatic or balletic incarnations, was never intended to be an innocent, wide-eyed ingenue. She is also playing the game for compliments, jewels, her pretty glass house. A traditional production puts the courtesan in a situation we have come to lushly romanticise - but Kent's production throws the courtesan into a discomfortingly modern prospective. She is a woman, who if walking down the street today, most of the Covent Garden crowd would shun, a woman whose constant parade of outfits would be eagerly documented by the DailyMail. It was an interesting approach which I seemed to stomach better than most, even in all its Malibu Barbie hyper-sexualised soft-porn male fantasy glory. 

However, it must be stressed that much of the success of the night has to be attributed to the sheer prowess of Kaufmann, Opolais and Pappano. The garishness of Act II I can rationalise, but had it not been Kaufmann, so vocally rich and persuasive, and Opolais, so completely immersed in the role that she radiated real convincing beauty even beneath the frankly ridiculous outfit, the entire act might have fallen completely flat. In terms of orchestration and libretto, I will always favour the reconciliation scene between Manon and Des Grieux in Massenet's opera, which truly emotes torment, seduction and lust most potently. But Kaufmann, most convincingly melding a sense of being wronged with longing, stepped forward with such earnestness that the frenzied emotion seized the audience. He sings helplessly, indignantly, pathetically, about having descended down the rungs of shame for her, leaving prudence and principles behind. His rich, earthy tone caresses every syllable with sincerity yet his high notes that expel with real purity and blossom with Puccini's swelling strings provoked a great sigh of exhilaration from the audience at every turn. With Kaufmann's Des Grieux, his voice is enough to transport. From his first appearance, there was a great sense of continuously falling from a precipice - Des Grieux's reverent awe upon his first meeting Manon, to an abandoned lover's conflict, to a broken man, it was an immersive experience. Opolais partnered him wonderfully. Her Manon was carefully studied and never verged on a rapaciousness that was unlikeable. It was only in the final act, however, that Opolais truly seemed to sing without restraint, atop the broken road, facing death. Both singers were greatly supported by a wealth of talent. Benjamin Hulett as the carefree Edmondo was a real highlight, as was Pappono and the entire ROH orchestra. The played with sensitivity, passion and a drive I have not sensed from them since the Die Frau Ohne Schatten production in March. The cumulative effect truly paid tribute to Puccini's original conception of unfettered, dramatic Italianate passion.

Nevertheless, there were several outstanding flaws in the production. The sets while sometimes novel, just got wilder. The deportation in Act III became terribly unclear - what precisely was intended by having the miscreants disappear through a ripped poster I cannot say (although I was missing that bottom right hand corner of the stage stage from my seat which perhaps accounts for some, but not all, of the confusion). Act I was disrupted by the unnecessary appearance of the car which just seemed painfully awkward. The breathlessness of Manon and Des Grieux's first encounter was unfortunately detracted by the casino in the background - there was no sense of two souls recognising each other, a sense of a tremulously momentous occasion. In this, the production perhaps forgets that Manon Lescaut is inherently above great love and romance, which was left to the singers to portray (excellently). My greatest complaint though concerns the set of Act IV which seemed to replicate a scene out of Godzilla - why precisely has such a road been ripped brutally in half? Why is Manon despairing about a desert when she is clearly lying on Tarmac, and thus presumably not too far from civilisation? The latter half of the opera, while musically even more wondrous, became near on unfathomable through the production. While the concept Kent chose was perhaps inspired, quite a few things seemed lost in translation. HOWEVER, I do not believe that the production staff warranted the boos they received. Besides some sightline problems which will inevitably frustrate some, particularly those who have paid for top tier tickets, there was nothing inflammatory enough to have provoked such a show of disrespect. It is art, interpretation of a roles and characters and such dogmatism left an unfortunate mark on what was otherwise a truly enjoyable evening. Tomorrow, I leave London after completing the first year of my degree at university. After a year during which I spent more hours in ROH than in tutorials, I depart on a high note.

**Small note on sight lines
My usual seat of choice (standing at the back of the Stalls Circle, affording an unhindered view of the stage horizontally) was unavailable. Instead, I chose a standing seat on the balcony level, which very provided a surprisingly clear view of the stage, barring the bottom right hand corner. This seat was greatly fortuitous for two vastly important reasons - much of the singing in Act I especially was carried out on the left hand side. Moreover, much of Acts I and IV placed the singers on sets suspended high in the air (from my vantage point, it looked very much like Kaufmann and Opolais were plastered against the ceiling). Thus, had I taken my usual seat which has no elevation, I would have missed near half of the acting, which would have been distressing to say the least.

No comments:

Post a Comment