Massenet's most famous opera, a moralistic story of love versus materialism, should be full of wit, passion and drama but this production at the Royal Opera House, whilst enjoyable, could do with more innovation and creativity.
Manon (Ermonela Joho) is a very beautiful young woman on her way to the convent. But as she waits for the coach in the unfamiliar town of Amiens, she meets des Grieux (Matthew Polenzani) and the two instantly fall head over heels in love, as can happen at bus stops.
Overwhelmed with passion, the two immediately flee to Paris. But Manon's cousin Lescaut and her legion of admirers do not give her up so easily. She is tracked down by Lescaut (Audun Iversen) and her suitor de Bretigny (William Shimell) and forced to come to her senses.
Persuaded that the impoverished des Grieux cannot give her a future, Manon leaves with the wealthy de Bretigny. Broken by his abandonment, des Grieux devotes his life to God, as tends to happen in opera. But Manon soon realises that riches and furs cannot replace true love and so she sets out to track her former lover down and win him back. But obviously, this being an opera, I can't say this endeavour ends well for Manon.
Joho gives a strong performance as the complex Manon. Certainly her voice shines - she has great strength throughout her range and there was real emotional depth in the more dramatic arias. It was also a competent acting performance, though Joho seemed more at ease with Manon's guilt and passion rather than her girlish playfulness.
Polenzani also has a great voice but the production is largely stolen by Christophe Mortagne in the role of Guillot, one of Manon's many wealthy admirers. His comic timing and characterisation (as well as phenomenal voice) keeps his character on the right side away from being a rather unlikeable dirty old man.
This production initially premiered in 2010 and is competently directed by Laurent Pelly who makes good use of the available resources, though there is little about the production that is inventive.
The main characters are supported by a vast chorus of men and women who bustle around the sets. Whether they're travellers battling for their luggage at the bus stops or the party-goers at the festival of Cours-la-Reine, they bring great atmosphere and energy to the scenes.
There are also a few nods to popular culture. This is a tale of a young woman looking for love but distracted by wealth - not an unfamiliar tale. In Act Three Manon is at the promenade of Cours-la-Reine. Now partnered with de Bretigny, she has all the fine dresses and jewels she could want. Surrounded by a bevy of men in their top hat and tails, she playfully sings and teases them all whilst dressed in a long pink dress, gloves and diamond necklace - very much the Marilyn moment in the show.
Massenet certainly went all out in this opera, incorporating as much as he could get away with. In Act Three, Guillot drags in the Parisian Opera's corps de ballet to perform as part of his charm offensive against Manon, indulging Massenet's ability to compose as well for ballet as for opera. And certainly this cross-population of art forms was well-received as dancers from the Royal Ballet came onstage to perform.
The orchestra was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, who brought a wonderfully deft touch to the vast range of emotions within the music. Unlike other operas, Manon lacks a memorable big number but nevertheless the orchestral performance was superb.
The set design for this production was created some years ago and not only does it seem dated when compared to other set designs such as the ground-breaking Minghella-directed Madam Butterfly, but parts of it are also beginning to look a bit worn.
Act One sees the packed streets of Amiens represented nicely with a design of rooftops and plenty of windows for the ensemble to poke their heads out of, but the material used looks like stiff cardboard. Hardly appealing.
And in Act Two, the run-down top-floor apartment in Paris that the lovers have absconded to is built on a free-standing raised platform. But this was looking far from robust. It was actually swaying during the scene, which must have been pretty scary for the performers.
The set wasn't the only element showing its age. In Act Three, after the wonderful ballet interlude, the crowd of drunken men launch themselves at the ballerinas, bundling them over their shoulders. I suspect this was meant as a comic moment but it was greeted in stony silence by the auditorium. Scenes of women being dragged away by drunken men against their will have long stopped being funny.
These concerns aside, I did enjoy the production and despite its length, the audience was fully engaged throughout the four hour running time. However this is the Royal Opera House and it should look to start updating some of these staid productions and be more willing to challenge itself.
Royal Opera House, London
To February 4, 2014
Picture credits: © ROH/ BILL COOPER