Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House

Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann are on thrilling form in Puccini's early opera, says Rebecca Franks

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Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House
Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in ROH's Manon Lescaut
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Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first hit, a dramatically flawed but musically sumptuous work that captured the hearts of its first audiences and critics. The irresistible allure of a pair of ill-fated lovers, here the heroine Manon and the loyal Des Grieux, is the plot's strength. It uses that time-honoured formula seen in many famous love stories, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars, the box-office hit playing in the cinema next-door to this screening of Royal Opera House's production of Puccini’s opera. Many faults can be forgiven in the name of a good old weepie.

Nowhere is that more true than when the leads are soprano Kristine Opolais, her voice true and passionate as Puccini’s troubled heroine, and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who was utterly superb. Every moment thrilled with emotional intensity, from their first-act flirtation to the desperate finality of the fourth act. Under Antonio Pappano’s illuminating leadership, their orchestra was both lean and alert, perhaps less thrilling and passionate than I’d expected – though it was hard to gauge the full extent of their sound in the cinema.

Jonathan Kent’s production, with sets by Paul Brown, updated Abbe Prévost's 18th-century setting to something contemporary. It's sometimes sordid, though hardly provocative – it seems plausible that Geronte (an implacable Maurizio Muraro) might entangle Manon in the sex industry, exploiting her as the price of his wealth. The playful and girlish Manon we meet in Act One wearing a floral summer dress and denim jacket is transformed, in Act Two, into a manufactured plaything, dolled up in Barbie pink and platinum blond-dyed hair. She writhes and dances for the cameras and her male audience – it's not comfortable to watch, as we're in the voyeur's seat too – and is both a victim and architect of her own fate. It is her greed for jewels and money that has led her to leave Des Grieux for Geronte, with the help of of her opportunistic brother (the convincing Christopher Maltman). This weakness for wealth is revealed later in the act when she tries to flee with Des Grieux, but returns to try scoop up her riches, only to be caught.

Therein lies the weakness. Puccini dispenses with the intervening Parisian idyll, where Manon and Des Grieux live happily together. We never see why she leaves, but are simply asked to believe it’s for the money. Perhaps, watching from the safety of the 21st-century, the total financial dependency of women on men is hard to imagine. Yet, the power of Manon and Des Grieux's love is so strong – he returns to try to save her again and again – that it seems hard to believe that someone so adored, and so happy in love would chuck it all in to live an unhappy life of exploitation, whatever her weakness for material wealth. Even a nuanced actress like Opolais can’t cover up this blemish on Puccini’s creation. It speaks volumes for the score that the darkness and desperation of Acts 3 and 4 grips and convinces. The reality-TV trappings of Manon's trial in Act Three pave the way for the grim ending, where Manon is left 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata' (Alone, lost, abandoned), dying on a derelict fly-over in the desert, as bleak as Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

There’s still time to catch this production of Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House (4 & 7 July), or at the repeat cinema screening (date tbc). It is also on BBC iPlayer.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

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