Manon Lescaut

 

Puccini Manon Lescaut opera to libretto by Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica. Directed 2014 by Jonathan Kent at the Royal Opera House. Stars Kristine (Kristīne) Opolais (Manon Lescaut), Jonas Kaufmann (Des Grieux), Christopher Maltman (Lescaut, Manon's brother), Maurizio Muraro (Geronte), Benjamin Hulett (Edmondo), Nadezhda Karyazina (Musician), Robert Burt (Dancing Master), Nigel Cliffe (Innkeeper), Jihoon Kim (Sergeant), Luis  Gomes (Lamplighter), and Jeremy White (Naval Captain). Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master Vasko Vassilev) and the Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Master Stephen Westrop); designs by Paul Brown; lighting design by Mark Henderson; movement by Denni Sayers. Directed for the screen by Jonathan Haswell. Released 2015, music recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sampling specs; disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master sound output. Grade: B

Antoine-François Prévost d'Exiles (Abbé Prévost) wrote his book L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut in 1731. Massenet wrote his Manon opera in 1884 in French. In 1893, Puccini took the risk of tackling the same subject in Italian. Puccini explained,"Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and the minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion." For copyright reasons, Puccini used the name Manon Lescaut.)

Here's Manon Lescaut (Kristīne Opolais) who is 18 in this libretto:

As she's on her way to a convent, Manon meets Des Grieux (Jonas Kaufmann) in front of a hotel. He's a student reading Camus' L'Étranger (The Stranger). L'Étranger was published in 1942. Well, director Kent's production is not set in WW II, so let's say the time is the mid-50s or 60s. I just checked---at no time during this period was any part of the United States a colony of France. (More later on this.)

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Lescaut is Manon's vilely opportunistic brother (Christopher Maltman). He's knows Manon will not do well in a cloister:

Manon and Lescaut also met on the trip the wealthy and powerful business tycoon Geronte de Revoir (Maurizio Muraro). He decides, with the approval of Lescaut, to set Manon up in Paris in a cloister of his own:

But Geronte and Lescaut are frustrated when Manon and her student run away on their own to Paris!

Lescaut instantly comes up with Plan B:

Now Manon is living in Plan B:

She's also a movie star!

Des Grieux tries again:

Geronte informs on Manon to the vice squad:

In 1721, 90 women were transported from the Paris prison Salpetrière to the French colony of Louisiana to fend for themselves. This was almost 300 years ago when Louisiana included most of the American Great Plains (all of which was sold to the United States in 1803). This is what inspired Abbé Prévost in 1731 to write his book L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. The practice of sending prisoners to colonies died out in Europe about 150 years ago. This presents a bit of a problem for stage director Kent, who set this production of Manon Lescaut about the time Dwight D. Eisenhower was President.  The next screenshot depicts women being loaded on a ship in Le Havre to take them to a French penal colony called "America." This made sense long ago, but not in 1950. Such a huge time shift is jarring and interferes with the suspension of disbelief that's so important in the theater. Kent had an easy out on this---he should have sent Manon to the Algerian desert, which was at that time a French Colony (about to start a revolution). Well, below we see the first prisoner go on board:

Finally Des Grieux has a moment with Manon, which inspires him to talk the ship's captain into taking him to America as well:

Massenet has Manon die in France before she can be shipped out. But Puccini follows Prévost's novel to the bitter end with the gruesome death scene below (part Wagner and part Salvador Dali) in an American desert. In case you are wondering, Manon and Des Grieux in the image below are perched on the end of a destroyed superhighway. I would like to say to readers around the globe that highways in the USA, while not perfect, are usually in better repair than this:

Manon sends Des Grieux off to look for help and this leads to the most famous words from Manon Lescaut: "Alone, lost, and abandoned." They say Puccini wanted to cut this line, but Toscanini convinced him to keep it in:

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In recent years, Manon Lescaut has been the 54th most popular opera worldwide (Manon was 83rd). It's Pucinni's 6th most popular work. Pucinni made good on his passion promise: his story focuses on just 4 characters, all of whom can only be viewed with disgust or dismay, locked in a death-spiral of greed and lust. The orchestration is brilliant (be sure to play Pappanos' extra features on this) and supports this as dramaMAX throughout. (The only break from the intense psychological pressure is the "Puccini pause" that is characteristic of his style: here it's the liltingly tender and beautiful Intermezzo between Act 2 and Act 3, which gives the audience a little breathing room before viewing the rancid prison scene. Does any other opera have more fff singing per minuet than ML? Opolais, Kaufmann, Maltman, and Muraro all put out like champions.

But there are three worms in the melon. First is the time shift giving France an American colony in 1950. Second, the sets and costumes were to me often distracting and unconvincing. Geronte's cloister and Manon's pink costume were supposed to be salacious; I thought all that only looked tacky and cheap. And the unrealistic continuation of the bordello theme at the prison (not shown in the screenshots) seemed to me to nothing but silly pandering. Third, after all the investment made by the Royal Opera House (and me) in this show, I felt at the end no sympathy for Manon Lescaut. In Massanet's Manon, I feel sorry for the clueless girl who is just too pretty for her own good. True, Manon Lescaut as portrayed by Puccini never really injured anybody, and nobody deserves to die in the desert from dehydration---but to me, it was the slut's own damn fault. Is my lack of sympathy for Manon Lescaut due to the logic of the libretto or to the Opolais tough-girl image, or both? I don't know. I do know this: if I could only have one HDVD about Manon, I'd buy the Massenet disc. I you need to make the same choice, I hope this review will help you.

Update on 2016-02-04 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Mike Ashman, writing in the November 2015 Gramophone (page 92) liked this better than I did speaking of "uninhibited physical mastery of stage parts" and "the power and achievement of Jonas Kaufmann and Opolais in the lead roles." Ashman also liked the sets that I questioned. He finishes by stating that "rivals in period costume from both the Met and old Covent Garde exist but feel tame and cute in comparison." Wow! Maybe I undergraded this one.