Manon at the Royal Opera House: a voluptuous romp translated to the Belle Epoque

Opera’s ultimate problem-child heroine returns to the Royal Opera House in a production somewhat lacking in warmth.

Manon is opera’s ultimate problem-child – a heroine who refuses to offer any charm, any softness, any humanity to mitigate her ferocious social scramble of self-interest and ambition. She’s bad enough in the delicate elegance of her original eighteenth century. Update her to the glitz and gloss of the Belle Epoque as director Laurent Pelly does in this Royal Opera House production, and you risk losing any kind of aesthetic sympathy for this rapacious beauty.

Which is a shame, because this revival (originally seen in 2010) boasts some seriously fine singing – singing, if anything, too good for this voluptuous romp. If the sex is there then it doesn’t really matter about Massenet’s music. But if the music’s excellent then it raises the work to a level its flimsy substance simply can’t sustain.

We see teasing ankle-flashes of greatness here as Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho’s Manon effervesces into easy virtuosity for the Cours-La-Reine gavotte. The writhing “N’est-ce plus ma main?” is as indecent as ever Manon’s own creator Abbé Prévost could have hoped, and the tinkling, titillating strains of Poussette, Javotte and Rosette (Simona Mihai, Rachel Kelly and Nadezhda Karyazina) are vividly realised. It’s enough to make you wish that this fine cast were tackling La traviata or at least Puccini’s Manon Lescaut instead. Massenet is all very well for the foreplay, but can’t quite deliver the musical climaxes this protracted work requires.

Jaho tends to divide critics, and although by all accounts her opening night performance had its issues (no lower register to speak of, wayward intonation) this second night saw her vocally at her best. Nothing could have been more inevitable, more precise than her tuning, hitting her show-notes with the certainty of a DiDonato or Florez. Her light, filmy tone lends itself well to the earlier phases of a heroine required to move from teenage convent-bound ingénue to blowsy courtesan over the course of the evening, and matures into an appropriately brittle brilliance by the end.

Dramatically however there’s still a problem. Warmth is lacking, and the pairing of Jaho and American tenor Matthew Polenzani as the Chevalier Des Grieux feels correct rather than urgent or unbridled. Polenzani’s is a beautiful, flexible instrument, but built for delicacy rather than all-out belting passion. That’s no criticism, and in the big nineteenth-century roles would be a refreshing delight, but here among Chantal Thomas’s rather clinical sets and against the dramatic odds we could have done with just a little less understated beauty.

The supporting cast, led by veteran William Shimell as De Brétigny and Christophe Mortagne as Guillot de Morfontaine, are impeccable and the ROH chorus (especially the ladies) are on finest form. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume coaxes a deft, poised performance from the orchestra which matches Thomas’s designs for coolness, and stops just short of the vulgarity demanded by Pelly’s staging of the Saint-Sulpice scene, where even the pillars of Thomas’s set topple dangerously from their pure vertical.

There’s so much to like here, and had the production’s original star partnership of Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo returned with it there would have been much to adore. As it is, Manon certainly offers a good evening at the opera. But at four hours long the stakes are high, and all the ballet dancers, choreographic punchlines and fine singing in the world still struggle to ignite a romance that isn’t quite sure of itself.

Ermonela Jaho as Massenet's Manon Lescaut Photo: Bill Cooper
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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser