Sunday, 19 January 2014

Manon (ROH)

I probably shouldn't admit this, given that all-embracing knowledge (or at least a decent pretence of it) might be seen as a prerequisite of any critic's claim to authority, but this was the first time I'd seen Manon in the theatre. Indeed, it was the first time I'd listened to it all the way through; I'd tried to give it a listen on CD a couple of times but had never been been drawn in (I'd picked up the Pappano recording cheap years ago, although have now, at someone's recommendation, ordered the classic EMI Monteux, with De Los Angeles, to supplement it). I think I only ever got as far as Act 4, little realising what lay in store in Act 5. My impression from those abandoned listenings was of a score that was decorous when I wanted it to get down and dirty.

Ermonela Jaho in Manon at the Royal Opera House (photo: Bill Cooper)

The period trappings, rather than showing Massenet's mastery in mixing historical colour with modern, direct emotion (as at least two of the Royal Opera programme's essays so eloquently explained it did) seemed merely to hold up the action--literal and psychological; the big tunes, it felt to me, were wheeled out at strategic intervals--and with no little cynicism--to yank the heartstrings and loosen the tear ducts. I missed the more exquisitely tortured emotion of Werther (Charlotte's 'Va! Laisse couler mes larmes' gets me every time, and I might as well use this as an excuse to post a link).

I also missed the lavishly overheated eroticism of Thaïs, whose heroine makes much more of an art-form of her glorious self-obsession and vanity (I was blown away by the piece in concert in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, when Andrew Davis really found the drama behind the beauty, in a way that Yves Abel's rather limper conducting on Renée Fleming's Decca recording doesn't).

My impression was that Manon was similar to Hérodiade in never quite hitting the spot. Part of the problem might be Manon's place as the quintessential fallen women, whose trajectory from innocence to disgrace now seems all too automatic and paradigmatic, risking becoming more a parable (laced, of course, with some pretty questionable misogyny) than a drama; Verdi's Violetta shows us how much more tragic such a demise can be when its reasons are more clearly delineated, the blame more clearly apportioned.

Manon's position within the complex generic taxonomy of 19th-century opera in France was also a problem for me, and I feel the opéra-comique elements do risk getting in the way, rather than adding important complexity and contrast (or maybe I'm just yet to succumb fully to operatic francophilia). Certinaly Laurent Pelly's stylish production at the Royal Opera didn't really help me in this regard, grasping every available opportunity for comique gestures: synchronised dance moves from the chorus, Des Grieux raising his hands in mock boxing pose when his garrett idyll faced disturbance in Act 2. It all meant that the tragedy had to work harder to assert itself. As did the fact that I never really felt as though the love between Manon and Des Grieux--admittedly fast-tracked unrealistically in Act 1 from first meeting, via declaration, to elopement--really established itself.

Ermonela Jaho and Matthew Polenzani (Photo: Bill Cooper) 
This, in part, must be down to Ermonela Jaho as Manon. The Albanian soprano acts well and looks fantastic, but the voice just never displays the sort of sensual allure that must be essential to establishing the character in everyone's hearts. Her French isn't great, either, notably so in a cast that managed to get a lot of the words across. She managed several affecting moments in isolation (which brought back memories of her shattering, if also rather vocally underpowered, Suor Angelica a couple of years ago), but the cumulative effect wasn't what I think it should have been: Act 5 was undeniably powerful, but seemed to be so in isolation, rather than serving as the culmination of a long evening (with two intervals, the whole thing lasted a hefty 4 hours).
Matthew Polenzani was better up to the challenges of Des Grieux, singing with plenty of style and melting pianissimos; there were times when I longed for a little tighter focus in the sound itself, but this was some classy singing. There was plenty of good singing from the rest of the extended cast, too (William Shimmell, in particular, certainly made the most of old De Brétigny), and the Royal Opera House orchestra played beautifully for Emmanuel Villaume. 

And what about Manon itself? By the end of the evening I could feel my resolve and my perhaps-too-hastily-formed critical view beginning to weaken. The two lovers in the performance (the second in the run) certainly did win me over in the final act, and they're only going to get better as the run progresses. (Aylin Pérez will no doubt bring a different colour to the heroine when she sings takes over for the final two performances.) The work's seductiveness is such, though, that I'm wondering if I should maybe try and catch it again in this run, you know, just to be 100% sure I don't like it. 

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