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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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war