Kristine Opolais as Manon and Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux in "Manon Lescaut". Photograph: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House
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Uneasy futility at the opera: Manon Lescaut and In the Penal Colony

Alexandra Coghlan reviews Jonathan Kent’s new production of Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House and Shadwell Opera’s In The Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre.

Opera audiences are a fickle bunch. They embrace Puccini’s Mimì as a beloved heroine, yet have a much more ambivalent relationship with the composer’s other flawed heroine Manon – younger and far more vulnerable to the schemings of others than Mimì. That Jonathan Kent’s new production of Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House should be the company’s first for 30 years says a lot about the work’s uneasy place in the repertoire; that it should be so determinedly, aggressively grim says rather more about why.

Kent’s Manon emerges from a people-carrier into a grimily kitsch contemporary apartment block, complete with gambling club and hordes of neon-clad, disaffected youth. Recaptured by Geronte, she finds herself in a soft-porn, MTV dolls’ house, complete with hot-pink accents and wipe-clean furniture. A row of bald old men watch as she preens and gyrates for their entertainment.

Is it shocking? As a contemporary parable about the unscrupulous exploitation of the sex industry, perhaps, but as an opera production? Not so much.

The production, designed by Paul Brown, is rather too self-conscious about its visual and dramatic provocations. They feel non-committal, experimental, their excesses safely anchored by the heart-on-sleeve romanticism of Antonio Pappano’s conducting and very prim surtitle translations. The result feels like a rather uneasy negotiation between what Royal Opera House audiences actually like and what the director thinks they ought to like – a sideways glance toward European theatre, without ever meeting its uncompromising gaze.

But the music is a different story. Here everything is 19th-century romance and passion. There are no gimmicks powerful enough to distract from Pappano’s orchestra – emotionally urgent but never indulgent, powering though this fine score with all the conviction that the drama lacked.

In two of this season’s most exciting role debuts, both soprano Kristine Opolais and tenor Jonas Kaufmann appear for the first time as star-thwarted lovers Manon and Des Grieux. Kaufmann’s baritonal colour lends a maturity to this impulsive character, supplementing some of the depth that Puccini forgets to write for him in the careful vocal shading. It’s beautiful, exceptional singing, but dramatically perhaps a little too striking. We feel so confident in the young lover that we lose the doubts that are essential to the unfolding tension. Opolais warms from an understated opening innocence to an astonishing climax in Act IV, and I only wish that Brown’s David Lynch-inspired final set hadn’t distracted so strongly from the intimate intensity of this final encounter. Christopher Maltman rounds out the principals with vocal swagger as man-on-the-make Lescaut.

Though musically exceptional, I fear this might just be the production to condemn Manon to another 30 years in storage, lacking as it does the same courage of conviction we find in Puccini’s complicated, misguided heroine.

From the excess of Puccini to the ascetic minimalism of Philip Glass. Just down the road from the Royal Opera House, in the Arts Theatre, young company Shadwell Opera are currently staging In The Penal Colony, the composer’s vividly unsettling response to Franz Kafka’s story.

Kafka and Glass are a natural fit, both delighting in futility, in the art of endless repetitions and formal processes. The only mercy shown by Kafka in his brutal parable In the Penal Colony is that he writes it as a short story. During the hour or so it takes to read you can look away, skim the worst of the horrors. The same is not true of Glass. Though a chamber piece, played here straight through in a single unfolding act, the work is long enough to pierce the emotional skin, to force an audience rather further beyond comfort.

Kitty Callister’s minimal designs – a rattan chair, a tent – suggest a colonial environment but otherwise Jack Furness’s production keeps its options open – allusive as well as elusive. What’s being played out here is a human drama, indifferent to creed, colour, politics or location. The accompanying string quartet and conductor Matthew Fletcher share the stage, breaking any comforting illusion of fiction. In case anyone was still left clinging to it, Andrew Dickinson’s Visitor emerges from the audience onto the stage – one of us, he may as well state, and nor more and no less complicit.

In The Penal Colony is an opera that stands or falls with its cast, and Shadwell Opera have assembled some exciting young talent. Dickinson is that rarest of things, a genuine high tenor, tackling Glass’s unforgiving lines with tone and personality, never letting the technical demands intrude into characterisation. His pen-pushing, nervously polite Visitor is set against Nicholas Morris as The Officer – radiant with misplaced zeal and fanaticism. Morris’s is a muscular baritone in the Maltman mould, and a voice I’d like to hear a lot more of in future. All the singers are well supported by string quintet The Perks Ensemble.

The early simplicity of Furness’s production is traded in later in the show for some very graphic visuals – all the more shocking for emerging from nowhere. It’s not Titus Andronicus, but it certainly cuts to the violent heart of Kafka’s story; suddenly we’re not talking about the idea of torture so much as torture itself, a dramatic sleight-of-hand that’s elegantly handled.

My only complaint of this, the UK’s second production of Glass’s opera, is that like the repetitions of Kafka’s machine, Glass’s mechanistic arpeggios ultimately fail to bring enlightenment. But as to whether that is a deliberate choice or a failure – that’s a matter of taste.

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.