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
Getty
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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times