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

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle