Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

La forza del destino at Covent Garden

Prima la music, poi la parole? It’s the perennial operatic conundrum which has exercised composers from Monteverdi, to Salieri, to Strauss. But, on this occasion we were reminded that sometimes the answer is a simple one: Non, prima le voci!

Barbara Hannigan sings Berg and Gershwin at the Barbican Hall

I first heard Barbara Hannigan in 2008.

New perceptions: a Royal Academy Opera double bill

‘Once upon a time …’ So fairy-tales begin, although often they don’t conclude with a ‘happy ever after’. Certainly, both Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, paired in this Royal Academy Opera double bill, might be said to present transformations from innocence and ignorance to experience and knowledge, but there is little that is saccharine about their protagonists’ journeys from darkness to enlightenment.

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

<em>Manon Lescaut</em> at Covent Garden
24 Nov 2016

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sondra Radvanovksy (Manon)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

A crumbling freeway flyover juts jaggedly into a black nothingness. As Manon collapses into her desert surrounding, so the terrain itself sinks into abyss.

Puccini’s third opera was premiered in Turin on 1st February 1893 - just over a week before the first performance of Verdi’s Falstaff in Milan - and the work’s blending of obvious debts to Italian Ottocento lyric traditions and an engagement with Wagner’s innovative harmonic language ensured that it was an unqualified success, with contemporary critics declaring Puccini the foremost composer on the Italian scene.

However, to present-day audiences, Puccini’s opera can seem less an evolutionary development of the past, and more a strikingly modern statement. And, despite the undeniable beauty of the score, after its initial triumph the opera’s subsequent critical reception has at times been characterised by disquiet: a sense that there is something insalubrious and ‘not quite nice’ about the opera. Kent and his designer Paul Brown wholly embrace the dark side of Puccini, and drag his nineteenth-century good-time-girl-gone-bad into the modern world.

Their dystopian twilight zone is, however, somewhat at odds with the sensuous eroticism of Puccini’s score. Admittedly, when mired in the bleakness of Act 4, it is difficult to find a redemptive note in Manon’s demise - a death which she fights to the last: ‘No! non voglio morir …’ But, it is passion and not pointlessness which lies at the heart of this opera, and it is this essential ‘soul’ which Kent neglects. There is a gratuitous quality about Manon’s suffering; it signifies nothing but itself.

Fortunately, conductor Antonio Pappano is in the pit to restore the opera’s impassioned pulse and pump emotional life-blood through its veins. On the first night of the run, his crafting of the musico-dramatic ebbs, flows and lurches was masterly and utterly convincing. Pappano has an innate feeling for the long lines which expand so effortlessly. The constant shifts of mood seem entirely natural. The Prelude opened with a searing and slashing slash of the violins’ knife but before we knew it the mood had lightened and we were swept along by the rich busyness of the opening scene. The intermezzo between Acts 2 and 3 presented a stunning array of emotional colours and musical ambiences: there was a tremendously sense of spontaneity and directness, as Pappano plunged the depths of the drama. The ROH Orchestra held nothing back, but the playing was never anything but elegant. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the performance was that while the ostentatious romantic climaxes were relished there were moments of great delicacy too. The series of chords that open the final Act were an unnerving shudder of death; mid-way through this Act, the theme which represents the protagonists’ love - and which had blazed so triumphantly at the end of Act 3 - was heard again, a shimmering reprise, a symbol of a hope now faded and elusive.

cBC20161118_ MANON_LESCAUT_0029_  ROYAL OPERA CHORUS c ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpgROH Chorus, Act 1. Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Kent and Brown are more mundane, the brutality of their realism quashing any lingering romance. The square and inn of Amiens, the setting for Act 1, are jettisoned for a flashy apartment block and a gambling casino. Thus, a light-hearted evening gathering in the village - denim-clad teenagers whizz around atop wheelie bins and adolescents bounce about exuberantly led by Luis Gomes’ ebullient, open-hearted and warm-voiced Edmondo - is set against an iniquitous den of baize gaming tables and one-armed bandits, intermittently lit with a lavish glare by lighting designer Mark Henderson.

cBC20161118_ MANON_LESCAUT_0098_ LUIS GOMES AS EDMONDO c ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpgLuis Gomez as Edmondo. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Manon arrives in a silver SUV, a picture of innocence in her floral frock. But, it’s but a short step from urban ingénue to Geronte’s peacock in a ‘golden cage’. And, in Act 2 Manon finds herself in an opulent but lurid boudoir of cerise and purple, in which time stands still and Manon herself is frozen as one of Geronte’s riches.

There is nothing intimate about this ‘private’ space which is the setting for Act 2; it’s a peep-show booth in which Manon preens her hair, applies her elaborate make-up, is pleasured by the lesbian Singer - a role ably sung by Emily Edmonds - and gyrates and squirms for the delectation of a posse of geriatric, masked voyeurs, who, with their backs to us, enjoy a soft-porn display during the Act 2 pastorale which a cameraman records on a hand-held camera - presumably for YouTube dissemination.

cBC20161118_ MANON_LESCAUT_0155_ LEVENTE MOLNAR AS LESCAUT, SONDRA RADVANOVSKY AS MANON LESCAUT c ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpgLevente Molnar as Lescaut, Sondra Radavanokvsy as Manon Lescaut. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Kent’s trope, though, is not irrelevant. From her first entrance in Act 1, Manon is presented through the gaze of others, principally Des Grieux. When Lescaut’s cries to the Innkeeper catch his attention, he raises his eyes and sees Manon: the libretto tells us that ‘facendo un gesto di meraviglia, la osserva estatico’ (making a gesture of amazement, he looks at her ecstatically), and with a cry, ‘Dio! Quanto è bella’ (God! How beautiful she is), he hides from view in order to espy her. His gaze guides us; we first see Manon through the filter of Des Grieux’s rapture and wonder. Our gaze is bound with his and that of the other characters on stage, including the assembled line of dirty old men. In Kent’s reading, our ‘heroine’ is aware that all eyes are on her, and is complicit in the performance of her personae.

Yet, whether the director manages to turn Manon from a passive object of desire into an active subject who can manipulate her own identity within a prescribed system is another matter. Urging her to escape, Des Grieux cries ‘Bring only your heart’ as Manon stuffs Geronte’s jewels into a pillow case; her tardiness is her downfall - seemingly captivated by the room’s treasures she succumbs to its claustrophobic clutch and is arrested.

cBC20161118_ MANON_LESCAUT_0297_ SHIPLEY AS SERGEANT, CRAWLEY AS NAVAL CAPTAIN ANTONENKO AS CHEVALIER DES GRIEUX c ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpgDavid Shipley as Sergeant, Nicholas Crawley as Naval Captain, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Des Grieux. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

In Act 3 the dock-side square at Le Havre, through which the humiliated prisoners process on their way to deportation to the US, becomes in Kent’s hands the studio of a TV reality-show, compered not by a police sergeant but by a tuxedoed MC. The girls are taken to an Amsterdam-style red-light district where sex slaves are trafficked abroad by pimps.

And, though there are, during the proceedings, some front curtain projections of text from the 1731 novella by Abbé Prévost on which the opera is based, Puccini’s Act 4 crucially rejects the context provided by Prévost's narrative, and excludes the months of contentment spent by Manon and Des Grieux in New Orleans. So, Kent plunges us into misery - and pushes Des Grieux and Manon through a gaudy advertising hoarding onto a highway of broken dreams.

In the title role, Sondra Radvanovsky does not always appear a natural fit for Kent’s soft-porn star protagonist but her warm soprano wins our sympathy, and she crafts many a winning lyrical line, counter to the staging’s coldness. Radvanovsky acts and moves well. Her vibrato was quite wide and in the first two Acts she exhibited a tendency to slide onto notes - and struggled to hold onto the note when she’d got there - but she succeeded in conveying both the warmth and vulnerability of Puccini’s creation. Manon’s Act 4 peroration, ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ - in which Puccini thrusts Manon into our prying gaze (in contrast to Prévost’s discretion) - was a touching rebellion against death and against the society which seeks to punish her. In Manon's last vocal moments, Radvanovsky found incredible, if waning, sweetness, ensuring that we understood the dreadful regrets of the dying woman. Radvanovsky crafted the arching cries, the fragmented contours, and the truncated repetitions, with acute theatrical insight and technical skill - she moved, indeed leapt, effortlessly, from the top to the bottom of her range.

cBC20161118_ MANON_LESCAUT_0890_ ALEKSANDRS ANTONENKO AS CHEVALIER DES GRIEUX, SONDRA RADVANOVSKY AS MANON LESCAUT c ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpgAleksandrs Antonenko as Des Grieux and Sondra Radanovsky as Manon Lescaut. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko was vocally assured as Des Grieux; he fired his big guns with lyric aplomb - ‘Donna non vidi mai’ was impressively expansive - and if some of the risks he took at the top end did not come off, then at least he was impassioned in his essays, and his Act 4 emoting was superb. Antonenko is not equally assured across his range, but this helped to convey an impression that his Des Grieux combined vocal strength with vulnerability.

cBC20161118_ MANON_LESCAUT_0090_ ERIC HALFVARSON AS GERONTE DE REVOIR c ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpgEric Halfvarson as Geronte de Revoir. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Eric Halvarson was a cunning Geronte de Revoir, not afraid to make an ugly sound if it served the drama. His elderly roué had strong dramatic presence, and the text was cleanly delivered. Levente Molnár was persuasive as Manon’s charming but unprincipled brother, Lescaut.

I left the theatre feeling that if Tosca was Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’, then Manon Lescaut was his depiction of shockingly cruel injustice.

Claire Seymour

Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut - Sondra Radvanovsky, Chevalier des Grieux - Aleksandrs Antonenko, Lescaut - Levente Molnár, Geronte de Revoir - Eric Halfvarson, Edmondo - Luis Gomes, Musician - Emily Edmonds, Dancing Master - Aled Hall, Singer - Emily Edmonds, Lamplighter - David Junghoon Kim, Sergeant - David Shipley, Naval Captain - Nicholas Crawley, Innkeeper - Thomas Barnard; Director - Jonathan Kent, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Designer - Paul Brown, Lighting designer - Mark Henderson, Movement director - Denni Sayers, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Tuesday 22nd November 2016.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):