In review: Manon Lescaut at ROH
Manon Lescaut, currently onstage at the Royal Opera House until December 12, was a true showcase of two stunning singers of today. Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Des Grieux were a beautiful, honest pair of singing actors who achieved everything with their voices.
Jonathan Kent's production sets Puccini's Manon Lescaut in roughly present-day, surrounding a hotel/club/casino that seemed perhaps more reminiscent of Miami than Paris. Manon's transformation from naïve to, well, naïve, was amplified by visual familiarities, like a big ugly van in which she and her brother moved (from what felt like the American Midwest), and Manon's cute blush flats - which she later trades for killer hot pink pumps. We understood her shift from simple to lavish, and Kent made use of symbols in Illica's libretto (heavy-handed as they are), like sunsets and harsh, desolate roads.
The story of Manon is certainly one that stands the test of time; today, there are still young women who rebel against the wishes of ther families, who choose easy comforts over trying relationships, and who seem to find it hard to consider the ripple effect of their actions. While the large themes translate well into modern day, Manon Lescaut contains details that seemed to stick out as odd and anachronistic when updated.
There are 21st-century women who are pressured by their parents into a life they don't choose, yet being sent to a convent is arguably more period-specific. Rich people get to enjoy private entertainment; yet a troupe of minstrels showing up in someone's bedroom is of another time. And while there's a theatrical trope of a chorus who comments on the actions of a main character, it's harder to believe a hoarde of people at a casino have turned their attention away from gambling, to Manon's outsmarting of her would-be abductors.
We were left with questions: was Manon entertaining a live audience with her gavotte, or was she doing some form of cam sex work? When the other imprisoned courtesans were roll-called and coralled in a corner, why was Manon able to simply walk off and cling to Des Grieux? Why did the cameras return for the parade of sex workers, and why was there a TV-taping audience present for it?
Throughout the questions, we were treated to a heartbreaking and real performance from the cast. Baritone Levente Molnár went from a slimy, opportunistic brother of Manon, to an earnest man who colludes with Des Grieux to rescue her from sex slavery. Bass Eric Halfvarson was a booming Geronte di Revoir, singing with a huge and beautiful sound that seemed to fool the audience into thinking he was a benevolent patriarch. Tenor Luis Gomes was an energetic, bright Edmondo, a strapping sidekick of sorts whose voice showed hints that he may soon be a lovely Des Grieux. There was excellent representation from the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, with solid performances by Emily Edmonds as the Musician, David Junghoon Kim as the Lamplighter, and David Shipley as the Sergeant.
Yet the show truly goes to Radvanovsky and Antonenko. Antonenko sang with a beautiful virility in his sound, indulging in the oh-so-Italian first meeting with Manon, and graduating to a tortured, conflicted man, constantly and forever in love. Despite Kent's production, and its tendencies to make big moments in the score seem visually too small, Antonenko had our eye whenever he was onstage, and he achieved that tricky balance between idealistic student and protective man.
Radvanovsky seemed to gleam from her first sounds. Her voice truly transformed along with Manon's trajectory; between the first and second acts, her singing of girlish innocence was traded for a voice full of womanly curves, almost exasperatingly beautiful. Her Manon Lescaut was our first hearing of Radvanovsky in a Puccini role, and the precision and thrill in her sound came with a roomy, indulgent quality that never belied her text. It's no easy task to make Manon truly likable; she developed a rich relationship with Antonenko's Des Grieux, one that we felt as though we understood by the time of its hopeless end.
Antonio Pappano led a sensitive, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House malleable orchestra that had an enormous range of colour. They achieved everything from stunningly gentle, to rage that seemed to make one's stomach drop. It was a true spectacle to hear the combination of Pappano, Radvanovsky, and Antonenko.
Though we're not entirely sold on Kent's production, the ROH's Manon Lescaut is a feast for the ears. Five performances remain; for details and tickets, click here.