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.