The Royal Opera House is on a bit of a 'Manon Mission' at the moment. The original novel by the Abbé Prévost has inspired a number of films, operas and ballets and this year, three of them are being staged. January saw the production of Massenet's opera 'Manon', and in the autumn, the Royal Ballet are presenting Kenneth MacMillan's adaptation (also based on works by Massenet - although not the score from his own opera. Keep up! etc...)
In between, however, comes something rather different: Puccini's first smash hit 'Manon Lescaut', produced just under a decade after Massenet and in some ways a deliberate response to it. (Puccini himself said that he would provide the passionate Italian counterpart to Massenet's French delicacy.)
Manon is being chaperoned by her brother Lescaut on the way to joining a convent. En route, she meets poor student Des Grieux and the two fall in love, essentially at first sight, and elope - foiling wealthy oldster Geronte, who had also planned to steal Manon away. However, since Des Grieux has no money, Geronte taps into Manon's weakness for luxury and riches, and persuades her to leave Des Grieux for him anyway. Fast forward, and Manon is Geronte's bored, cossetted mistress. Des Grieux (now with a bit more cash after a gambling crash-course from Lescaut) comes to win her back and succeeds - but Geronte, discovering their reunion, arranges for Manon's arrest as a courtesan. The rest of the opera deals with Des Grieux's helpless and ultimately futile attempts to rescue Manon, first from deportation and finally - after going with her into exile - death from thirst and exhaustion in the New Orleans desert.
Puccini moves through the plot faster than Massenet: for example, the French opera, treating its heroine with rather more sympathy, shows us the time Manon first spends with Des Grieux - and accordingly, we witness how she is allowed to be persuaded away. Puccini doesn't bother with any of that. Taking Manon's initial shallowness as a given, he pulls off an audacious dramatic jolt as we see Manon flee with her first lover one minute, then appear in the bedroom of her second paramour the next. As the opera continues, Manon never becomes wholly winning nor utterly despicable - poignantly, she goes back for her jewellery at the crucial moment she might have escaped arrest - and realises (too late, of course) how she has assisted her own downfall.
As the opera ruthlessly sends its characters hurtling to their fates, it's easy to see the inklings of the 'Tosca' to come in this earlier effort: it has the same thriller/film noir pacing, complete with femme fatale and ruined suitor, both their own worst enemies. Accordingly, conductor Antonio Pappano draws the most astonishing variety from the orchestra with all the dynamic range and tight, turn-on-a-beat pacing that you might associate with soundtrack techniques - but instead of cues, re-takes and pre-records, of course, it's all live, and with a ravishing score.
While we're on the subject of ravishment, the modern production by Jonathan Kent has caused a bit of a stir. Act 1 begins as a semi-realistic updated staging of the student digs, with Lescaut falling in with the locals, allowing Des Grieux and Manon to meet. Act 2 ramps up the theme of Manon's exploitation by Geronte, where musicans brought in to amuse her actually involve Manon in their suggestive performances for the benefit of Geronte and his cronies. This was deliberately uneasy viewing, and although I felt it was justified I imagine it might be too garish or in-your-face for some tastes.
However, for me, the second half of the production was where everything locked into place and Kent's ideas really flew. At the interval break, between Act 2 and 3, the point of Manon's arrest - everything disintegrates for the couple. As if reflecting not just Puccini's reckless pace but also the way opera as a genre compresses and re-shapes huge events and emotions into brief moments of wracked beauty, Kent had the set collapse in on itself. Act 3 built the prison and harbour out of debris from the earlier scenes: buildings, furniture, even gambling tables. Most controversially of all (if I remember some of the reactions correctly), is the final act, featuring only the lead couple in duet: here perfomed in mid-air on the wreckage of a flyover. In other words, a literal representation of reaching the 'end of the road'. You could endlessly debate whether this was just someone giving into cliche, or knowingly using the cliche for ironic purposes. The point is, I think it had the desired effect, which was to start Act 4 with a single, 'what-the--?' visual coup, and then just let the soprano and tenor do their stuff.
It also formed a natural conclusion to where I felt the whole design of the piece was leading, accessing the inner turmoil of the characters and exploding it outwards - hyper-real rather than surreal - onto the stage. Opera does this anyway - people fall in love in seconds then take HOURS to die - and this felt like a mischievous yet sincerely worked-through nod to that aspect of the artform. The more broken Manon and Des Grieux are on the inside, the more damaged their artificial surroundings become (even the lethal desert is represented only by a torn billboard poster). They never get a change of clothes, so no matter how heart-rending the music and voices, visually they become more dishevelled, like ciphers in decay.
None of this would matter in the least, of course, if the singers didn't convince. That proved not to be a problem. This was the first time I had encountered Jonas Kaufmann live, and I wondered whether someone like him - in opera terms, a megastar - would sound or act any different from his fellow cast members. Yes and no. He is clearly a very special talent - all the range and power you could hope for without sacrificing any emotion or expression for volume. Given his sound, you could easily believe he must have remote access to an extra pair of lungs off-stage. But Kristine Opolais was every bit his equal, tender and forceful, sweet and stroppy, conveying Manon's double-edged character with great skill. The chemistry between the pair was at times verging on volcanic (Act 2 certainly had its fair share of 'Crikey!' moments)- which in fact made me even more impressed with Christopher Maltman, the baritone playing Lescaut, who turned his 'third role' into a fully-rounded, humorous but pragmatic major player.
It really struck me how all three leads combined their soaring voices with extremely naturalistic acting and physical movement - from the all-business farce-like chaos of the arrest scene, to the tiny shrugs and caresses when the game is up. When the curtain rose for applause, you could see the relief and delight on Kaufmann's and Opolais's faces, the two of them still seeming to hold each other up. That's how it must feel to be released from being 'in the moment' - but for two riveting hours.
(The image is the Royal Opera House's poster for the 'Manon Lescaut' cinema relay.)