22 Jan 2014
Jules Massenet: Manon, ROH
Tart with a heart, pleasure-loving ingénue, exploited naïf, or femme fatale?
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Tart with a heart, pleasure-loving ingénue, exploited naïf, or femme fatale?
Like Carmen before her, Manon leads men to steal, cheat and murder; but in Massenet’s opéra comique, the sweet sensuous of the score, and in particular the affecting beauty of the ‘innocent’ heroine’s music, might convince us that the worst thing she is ‘guilty’ of is a slight flightiness.
Laurent Pelly’s 2010 production, receiving its first revival here (revival director, Christian Räth), was designed with a particular Manon in mind - star diva Anna Netrebko, whose performances were lauded for their passionate fervour and luscious tone, and for the sparkling ‘chemistry’ between Netrebko’s Manon and her Des Grieux, Vittorio Grigolo. Ermonela Jaho, who made such a stirring debut at Covent Garden in 2008, as Violetta (again, stepping into Netrebko’s shoes, when the latter was indisposed), took a little time to warm up; in the opening act, her characterisation seemed to me rather unsubstantial, as she flitted about the central, open expanse of Chantal Thomas’s Amiens square, swirling and dancing light-heartedly. She certainly did not look as if she was unduly threatened or cowered by the looming walls of the convent to which her family have sent her - because she is too fond of a good time.
Jaho’s tone is attractive but, initially at least, was not sufficiently full of bloom to communicate engagingly with the audience, and the lower range lacked weight and focus; moreover, an overly broad vibrato and some rather indistinct French led to a sense of nebulousness. She brought greater variety of colour and more commitment to subsequent acts; ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ was a touching farewell to the humble, honest home life she has shared with Des Grieux; and Jaho sparkled disarmingly in Act 3, the high roulades of ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’ and ‘Obéissons quand leur voix appelle’ secure and conveying her frivolous delight and youthful superficiality.
American tenor Matthew Polenzani was a physically striking and vocally compelling Chevalier des Grieux. His powerful lyric tenor was soulful and touching; the ravishing whispered high pianissimos of his Act 2 aria, ‘En fermant les yeux’, suggested the fragility of his dreams for their future happiness. ‘Ah! Fuyez, douce image’, as the Abbé relives his memories with Manon, expressed both integrity and vulnerability; it was the highlight of the night. Polenzani has an exemplary grasp of the French idiom; the smooth legato, the sinuousness phrasing, and the sheer beauty of sound combined to create a dramatically convincing and musically enthralling performance. He deserved his considerable approbation.
Audun Iversen’s Lescaut was fittingly rumbustious, swaggering arrogantly and singing with vigour and vitality. As Guillot de Morfontaine, French tenor Christophe Mortagne was superb, reprising the role in which he made his ROH debut in 2010: by turns deluded roué and bitter fool, his strong acting was complemented by characterful singing. Alastair Miles and William Shimell offered strong support as the aging Count des Grieux and the self-important De Brétigny respectively.
Matthew Polenzani as Chevalier Des Grieux and Audun Iversen as Lescaut
Simona Mihai recreated her 2010 role as Pousette and was joined by two Jette Parker Young Artists, Rachel Kelly (Javotte) and Nadezhda Karyazina (Rosette). The perky trio sang crisply and brightly, their stage movements neatly executed and well-timed.
Pelly’s production is all about shifting perspectives and angles. Although the action has consciously been shifted from the France of Louis XV to La Belle Époque, in fact it tends towards abstraction, specificity of costume and period being less important than the inferences of the design. In Act 1 a steep staircase rises precipitously to the town houses perched precariously atop the convent walls (the stonework has all the solidity and appeal of a self-assembly furniture kit from MUJI); the stairway swings through 180⁰ for Act 2, forming a rickety gang-plank to the lovers’ garret apartment. The purple-grey Paris skyline shimmers charmingly in the hinterland, but the zig-zagging incline of the staircase embodies the obstacles in their path to future happiness.
Two crooked raked passageways, bordered by ugly metal railings, straddle the breadth of La Cours-la-Reine; the restriction on free movement that this imposes makes for a few choreographic challenges - the scene is really just an excuse for the opéra-comique’s obligatory ballet divertissement - but these are surmounted through some complex manoeuvring of personnel. There are some visual mishaps though. What is the point of the hazy ferris wheel flickering in the distance? And, what is the large round orange object centre-backdrop? Similarly, in scene 2 the dull green monochrome of the gaming room of the Hôtel de Transylvanie evokes severe asceticism rather than rakish hedonism.
In Act 4, the pillars in the vestry of the seminary at Saint-Sulpice list alarming askew, mirrored by Des Grieux’s austere iron-framed bed in the smaller chamber seen to the left; indicative of the way Abbé des Grieux’s faith is about to lurch out of kilter. Having behaved shockingly and with impunity throughout the opera, insouciantly offending bourgeois sensibilities and mores, in the final act Manon’s sins come home to roost and our heroine expires on road to Le Havre; Thomas’s angles have now sharpened to an infinity point, a row of street lights leading the eye to the horizon, the bleakness of the landscape (effectively lit by Joël Adam) inferring the desolate future.
Matthew Polenzani as Chevalier Des Grieux and Ermonela Jaho as Manon Lescaut
The chorus were on good form. The choreography (Lionel Hoche) is at times quite complex, requiring precision and nimbleness, and the large crowd scenes were slick. In the Hôtel de Transylvanie the bareness of the set, while unappealing to the eye, did at least allow for some complicated drills. Dressed in a shocking pink, sleeveless gown (a jarring clash with the deadening green walls), Manon presents a show routine reminiscent of Madonna’s video for Material Girl (itself a wry take-off of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend) -an allusion which was presumably intended to highlight the topicality of a tale which tells of a young woman’s desire for wealth and material comfort at the expense of love and relationships.
It’s a long show, at four hours, and at times I felt that conductor Emmanuel Villaume might have moved things along more swiftly. But the ROH Orchestra played with conviction and idiomatic style, the searing act climaxes giving depth and credibility to the emotions depicted on stage.
Overall, Pelly and Thomas tell the story clearly but they don’t quite fully engage our sympathy for the protagonists; the production needs a bit of a pick-me-up - perhaps things will swing along with more passion and pace as the run proceeds.
Cast and production information:
Manon Lescaut, Ermonela Jaho; Lescaut, Audun Iversen; Chevalier des Grieux, Matthew Polenzani; Le Comte des Grieux, Alastair Miles; Guillot de Morfontaine, Christophe Mortagne; De Brétigny, William Shimell; Poussette, Simona Mihai; Javotte, Rachel Kelly; Rosette, Nadezhda Karyazina; Innkeeper, Lynton Black; Guard 1, Elliot Goldie; Guard 2, Donaldson Bell; Director, Laurent Pelly. Conductor, Emmanuel Villaume; Dramaturg, Agathe Mélinand; Set designs, Chantal Thomas; Costume designs, Laurent Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte; Lighting design, Joël Adam; Choreography, Lionel Hoche; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 14th January, 2014.
This is a co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, New York, La Scala, Milan, and Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse. The run continues until 4 February. Mexican soprano Ailyn Pérez will sing Manon on 31 January and 4 February.