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.

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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.