ALBUM TITLE: Puccini: Manon Lescaut
WORKS: Manon Lescaut
PERFORMER: Kristine Opolais, Jonas Kaufmann, Christopher Maltman, Maurizio Muraro, Benjamin Hulett; Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano; dir. Jonathan Kent (London, 2014)
CATALOGUE NO: 88875105199
In 2014 the earliest of Puccini’s repertory operas returned to Covent Garden in this staging by Jonathan Kent, conducted by Antonio Pappano and headlining one of today’s leading tenors as Des Grieux and also a major star in the title role.
Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais more or less divide the opera up between them, surrounded as they are by secondary characters, all of them finely done, notably Christopher Maltman’s Jack-the-Lad Lescaut, Maurizio Muraro’s prosperous Geronte and Benjamin Hulett’s slightly nerdy Edmondo.
The original 18th-century setting, however – familiar not only from Puccini’s 1893 opera and Massenet’s slightly earlier (1884) setting, but also from the 1731 Prévost novel that inspired them both – is dropped in favour of a much darker and more sinister presentation centring on the contemporary sex trade. Manon is shown as one of innumerable sex-workers, whereas Puccini and his anonymous librettists present her as something a good deal more nuanced and complex: the result is a coarsening of the opera’s emotional territory that becomes physically ever vaguer and more abstract as the show goes on; by Acts 3 and 4, it’s not at all clear where we are.
Yet both individually and in their relationship to one another, the singing and acting of the two principals possess enough technical accomplishment and intensity to carry the piece along. Jonas Kaufmann is a gloriously ardent Des Grieux, recklessly embarking upon an emotional journey almost as distressing as that of the heroine herself. Kristine Opolais matches him in a performance that combines tenderness with wilfulness and a kind of doomed personal integrity exemplified in her vocal line. And Pappano brings his customary sense of style to the music. George Hall