Saturday, 10 December 2016

Sex, materialism, a fab soprano and wonderful food

Manon and her brother
“Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover,” said Puccini, when challenged over his choice of the same source material as that used by Massenet just nine years earlier.

And he went on: “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.”

The story of Manon Lescaut is based own a 1731 novel, L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost (all “powder and minuets” – or the literary equivalent of the latter, presumably).

That the libretto was put together by five writers chosen by Puccini, plus his publisher and himself, suggests an early version of US sit-coms by committee, but like some of those, somehow it works. Though it is advisable, as always with Puccini, not to look for any great profundity in the text.

This Royal Opera House production by Jonathan Kent debuted in 2014 and this first revival is directed by Paul Higgins.

Controversial for its suggestions of sex trafficking and prostitution, it’s an entirely modern setting of a work that has been considered troublesome to update.

So does it work? Well, to answer this, we need to take a closer look at Puccini’s version.

The story revolves around Manon Lescaut, a young woman whose father has decreed that she enter a convent and has entrusted her brother with ensuring it happens.

However, on the eve of her entry into the convent, she meets Des Grieux, a student who falls head over heels in love with her and urges her to run away with him.

In the meantime, Geronte di Revoir, an elderly treasurer general, tells her brother, who is escorting her to the convent, that Manon would be wasted in a convent – and her brother starts to have second thoughts about his task.

As her sibling is caught up in gambling, Geronte plots to take her to Paris with him instead – but Manon has already fled with Des Grieux.

Fast forward to Act II, where we find a pampered Manon living in opulence paid for by Geronte, who had hunted her down with the aid of her brother.

And after an initial period of love with Des Grieux, it seems that Manon had realised that love was not enough for her and that she required the material comforts that a poor student could not hope to afford.

Now, she’s putting on sex shows for Geronte’s friends, but when Des Grieux turns up, she has the chance to flee once more for love.

However, Manon’s material instincts come to the fore again and, so determined is she to pack as many jewels as possible, she’s unable to make her escape in time.

Geronte, feeling betrayed and being – here’s a guess – impotent in more ways than one, has shopped her to the authorities as a prostitute, and she’s taken by those authorities to be sent into exile in the New World with other sex workers.

But as the women (they’re all women, of course) brave a jeering crowd, Des Grieux steps forward once more and begs to be allowed to go into exile with her.

Finally, she dies in his arms in the middle of an American plain, realising the error of her materialistic ways and the value of true love – his for her and her’s for him.

It’s not hard to see that, texturally, there are things that modern sensibilities might find difficult. It’s also perhaps predictable that sex is the biggest problem for some – although in the case of both Des Grieux and later, Geronte, Manon makes her own choice to go with them.

Although the libretto uses the word ‘abduction’, she makes her own decisions.

Indeed, if we were going to talk of ‘trafficking’ in terms of Manon herself, then in modern terms, that would most appropriately apply to the initial decision of her father to force her in a convent – without any consideration for his daughter’s own choice.

Of course, hypocrisy about female sexuality is highlighted, but it’s also difficult not to see that, in terms of cause and effect, it’s not sex that gets Manon in trouble, but her devoted insistence upon trying to grab all the jewels possible rather than flee from the authorities after the lovers have been warned that they are coming for her.

It seems reasonable to suggest that what has upset some in terms of this production is that it makes these issues clear – perhaps, to some minds, such uncomfortable questions sully the lovely music?

And oh, the music is lovely.

It never ceases to amaze me how modern Puccini sounds – and while there are moments here that reflect the influence of Wagner (the later stages of Act II specifically), there are also sounds that seem to predict Ravel.

Of the cast in this revival, we were unfortunate that Aleksandrs Antonenko as Des Grieux was struggling with a sore throat (his apologies and plea for understanding conveyed to the audience during the evening, and totally understood), but it certainly didn't ruin the evening.

Sondra Radvanovsky was simply radiant as Manon: what a wonderful, soaring soprano – she hits the heights with apparent ease and is convincing in all other ways that the role demands too.

She creates for us a tragic heroine who is at once earthy yet saint; gritty, yet vulnerable. A wonderful performance – and honestly, I was aware of wearing an expression of delight during some of her singing. 

Ricotta underneath – delicate ribbons of butternut atop 
Levente Molnár’s Lescaut and Eric Halfvarson’s Geronte are both more than up the the task.

In the pit, the orchestra were excellent, with Antonio Pappano demonstrating once more his superb command of Puccini.

But before we got to the auditorium, we also dined in the Amphitheatre Restaurant for the first time, since it was the start of my birthday weekend.

I enjoyed a starter of truffled Westcombe ricotta, with ribbons and roasted cubes of butternut, and toasted pine nuts, micro herbs and a very subtle dressing.

The cheese was utterly delightful and the truffling serious.

The Other Half enjoyed a service of sea bass with fennel and orange – a perfect winter salad.

For a main, both of us opted for guinea fowl.

Now, I love game, but am not really familiar with this bird.

It was advertised as a ballotine, but was not. That was no problem. As a game bird, it was dryish, but the accompaniments of a frankly sensational jus, beautiful creamed parsnip, turned and cooked dessert apple and a bed of baby spinach more than assured that it was not a dry dish.

We had a single side portion of boulangerie potatoes between us.

For dessert, The Other Half went for 'winter fruits' (pineapple, pomegranate, papaya, melon and clementine), while I picked a poached Comice pear with quenelles of what turned out to be an insanely smooth Poire Williams cream.

We haven’t eaten at a theatre restaurant for a good 15 years: that was the Barbican and it was a bad experience – not helped by being far in advance of what we were used to at that stage.

This was not cheap (as we knew when we booked) but it was very, very good food and was also a very pleasant dining experience that made for a perfectly relaxed way to start the evening.

And as for being able to leave your dessert until the interval – well, that’s simply inspired.

I spent several years imagining that the Royal Opera House would be, per se, VERY expensive and also rather intimidating.

In terms of seats, prices are essentially better than those in the West End – and generally speaking, far more so.

In terms of atmosphere, I continue to be delighted and surprised by a friendliness that I have never experienced in any other live performance setting. Covent Garden is the only place where I've found myself engaged in conversation with complete strangers about what were going to see – and not in a negative way.

Alongside the Vue cinema in Islington, where we have thoroughly enjoyed deeply intellectual Marvel  and movies this year, the Royal Opera House has become somewhere I feel wonderfully at home.

All in all, this was a close-to-perfect evening.

And if memory serves me correctly, there’s more Puccini coming in the summer season …

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