Jules Massenet: Manon, ROH

Like Carmen before her, Manon leads men to steal, cheat and murder; but
in Massenet’s opÈra 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

Laurent Pelly’s 2010 production, receiving its first revival here (revival
director, Christian R‰th), 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 ‘ObÈissons quand leur voix
appelle’ secure and conveying her frivolous delight and youthful


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 AbbÈ 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 rouÈ 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
BrÈtigny respectively.

MANON_RO_1088.gifMatthew 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
…poque, 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 180? 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 opÈra-comique’s obligatory ballet
– 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 HÙtel 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 AbbÈ 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 JoÎl Adam) inferring the
desolate future.

MANON_RO_1168.gifMatthew 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 HÙtel 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.

Claire Seymour

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 BrÈtigny, 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 MÈlinand; Set
designs, Chantal Thomas; Costume designs, Laurent Pelly and Jean-Jacques
Delmotte; Lighting design, JoÎl 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 ThȂtre du Capitole, Toulouse. The run continues until 4
February. Mexican soprano Ailyn PÈrez will sing Manon on 31 January and 4

image_description=Ermonela Jaho as Manon Lescaut [Photo by ROH/Bill Cooper]
product_title=Jules Massenet Manon, Royal Opera House, London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ermonela Jaho as Manon Lescaut

Photos by ROH/Bill Cooper