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.

Photo: Getty
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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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