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And Miss Netrebko wore pink

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
06/22/2010 -  & June 25*, 28, July, 1, 4, 7, 10
Jules Massenet: Manon

Anna Nebrebko (Manon Lescaut), Vittorio Grigolo (Chevalier des Grieux), Christof Fischesser (Le Comte des Grieux), Christophe Mortagne (Guillot de Morfontaine), William Shimell (De Brétigny), Russell Braun (Lescaut), Simona Mihai (Poussette), Louise Innes (Javotte), Kai Rüütel (Rosette), Lynton Black (Innkeeper), Elliot Goldie, Donaldson Bell (Two guardsmen)
Chorus and orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Laurent Pelly (director & costume designer), Chantal Thomas (set designer), Lionel Roche (choreography)

A. Netrebko (© The Royal Opera/Bill Cooper)

So, is this the end of the Cult of the Opera Couple? The Alagnas’ recent public split was the oldest news to be announced since Jodie Foster came out. In the meantime, the operanisti had set their hearts on Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, a box-office draw on which to finance a 3 and half hour Manon. It didn’t matter there was nothing to see off stage, audiences fell for this photogenic pair and super-imposed their own, weird desires. Well, now there is a very large Villazón-shaped hole in this new production and, worryingly for a Friday night, even the odd empty seat. Whatever the reason for his withdrawal (and count me out of the recent Villazón backlash) too much was placed on this non-couple, to the detriment of the pieces they performed.

More importantly we should mourn the second tenor missing tonight; that of Philip Langridge. His death robbed us, not just of a great British tenor, but also in the last few years, one of the best character actors around. Great as Christophe Mortagne was as Guillot, I did keep wondering what Langridge would have done with the slimeball part. Very big shoes to fill...

This is, ludicrously, the first new Manon for Covent Garden in 22 years. The British have never really got this piece, with its length, oddly placed Italianate emotion and resemblance to Moll Flanders. I also suspect there are many subtleties of text, both sexual and satirical, that pass us by, leaving the extraordinary score, in the wrong hands, to become cheap, sweet and sickly. With its big, string heavy tunes, and frilly, rococo setting it can become, nightmarishly, Quality street: The musical!

With that in mind, it seems a surprising choice for this director. Laurent Pelly has made his career making the comic opera actually funny with inventive, broad productions that, while camp and colourful, belie a thoughtful, musical mind at work. But negotiating Manon’s multi-layered underworld of privilege, sex and consumption is very different to the cartoons of Offenbach and Donizetti.

Rather than change his style to fit the piece, Pelly has decided instead to fit the opera to himself and I think he has pulled it off. This has to be the funniest, and at first, most cartoony, Manon I have witnessed. Intelligently updated to more or less Massenet’s time, we are placed in the golden age of the French courtesan. The sets, rather than being choked by period detail, are a model of playful angles and dolls house perspectives, with space to focus on the principles. Only the lumbering set changes broke the spell in this five act work. The final, sickly yellow backdrop was a masterstroke of design and meaning, hinting at the death of Manon’s world, as well as herself. Elsewhere the townsfolk either pop out of windows or hover creepily around des Grieux’s garret flat like crows, often moving shoal-like in time to the music, a great alienation technique for maintaining des Grieux and Manon as outsiders. The chorus clearly enjoy Pelly’s style, having been given plenty to do and gradually becoming more naturalistic as the inevitable demise of Manon’s material girl existence progresses. The leching over the ballerinas or the brutal misogyny of the soldiers spitting on Manon all seemed more real than the bewigged postcard settings we usually get with Massenet stagings. There are some good gags. I especially loved the randy old ladies commenting on their hot new priest. Usually des Grieux’s exile into priesthood is treated as overcooked drama but Pelly never forgets the background life.

In short Pelly has removed the syrup, leaving a morbidly comic drama in that peculiarly French other-world of the professional mistress. More than anything, I was reminded of Lulu, not just for Manon’s baser instincts but for the succession of ‘respectable’ suitors who will fight, haggle and con to get the best deal at this weird cattlemarket of sex. There is a similar, dark humour I had not noticed before in Massenet’s work and which made me wonder what Pelly could make of Berg’s opera.

In this backdrop Anna Netrebko is a fabulous Manon. She can be so inconsistent, phoning in murkily pitched, speedily learnt readings to an adoring public. (If you don’t believe me, Youtube her awful Proms account of Strauss’ Morgen) It helps that she has done the part so often, but she also clearly warms to Pelly’s view of the temptress. Gawky of gait and dress and her butter-wouldn’t-melt, manipulative logic with men, she makes an astonishing entrance; at once a willing victim for the surrounding seediness. Her transformation into sexpot is utterly believable and almost endearing for her unquestioning optimism. She’s a knockout both vocally and physically in pink silk. Again, there is humour, drollness in fact (not a natural Netrebko skill, I had thought), such as her lies to des Grieux and her indifference at the Cours la Reine ballet.

It’s not the voice I personally would choose for Manon, being darker than the bright, crystalline types one associates with the opera, but Netrebko convinces right through to the very top of her voice. Although her French isn’t flawless (a lot of ‘bee-air’, rather than ‘bien’) her diction is not as cloudy as usual and the spoken recitatives are done very well by everyone, including her des Grieux.

Vittorio Grigolo makes an uncanny Villazón substitute (I bet they are the same costume size); same frame, same drama to the voice. Neither are what you would call an authentic French tenor but both have that essential thrilling sound that is sometimes too much for Massenet’s delicate lines. Grigolo might also want to curb that tortured, drawn out mezza-voce sob at the end of phrases. His aria was too loud but undeniably exciting. It’s absurd that a tenor like Grigolo is only now making his Covent Garden debut. I suppose there was always a whiff of crossover about him and his albums but he is the real deal. I just think he’s trying too hard, including holding notes for audience approval. His acting was also dialled up to eleven as the naďve romantic, constantly fidgeting and darting about like an amorous flea. His later scenes, however, brought more stillness, without losing intensity, especially when conspiring with Manon in the casino. We duly gave him pretty much the deserved ovation he had been working for all night.

As Lescaut, Russell Braun (son of the great baritone, Victor Braun) made a realistic figure out of Manon’s spineless cousin and was heart breaking in the final scene. Christof Fischesser (a singer new to me) was superb as des Grieux’s interfering father, capturing both the sarcasm and concern at his son’s decisions and singing with rich tone throughout. Pelly tended to make too much physical comedy out of the pot bellied, inadequate Guillot, but Mortagne was an excellent foil to the other townsfolk jeering at him.

Predictably Antonio Pappano was in his element. As in Puccini, he has a knack for Massenet’s pacing and thick textures. Speeds are quick, but he uses rubato tastefully and, even at the grand climaxes, the detailing is never forgotten. In the earlier acts, that almost indefinable French sound is achieved; the sandy, delicate string textures and biting wind sounds. But it all packs a punch. There is real swagger in the casino scenes and the orchestra play the pathos for all its worth, without losing, most crucially of all, the humour in the score.

Yes, Manon is too long but tunes come no bigger or bolder than this. This is a West End show in all the right ways. Netrebko gives it the wow factor, Pappano, blazing energy but it is Pelly who does the deed and removes the stifling good taste from this torrid little tale. Catch it while you can. No, really try. Covent Garden can only afford seven performances, it seems.

Barnaby Rayfield



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