When Jonathan Kent’s production of Manon Lescaut first appeared in 2014, the performances of Kristīne Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann in the lead roles were universally praised, but opinion was more divided over the effectiveness of the staging. This time around, although some question marks remain about the latter, many more things seem to slot into place, while the singing from this entirely different cast also proves strong.
The setting is the modern day, although costumes and other elements carry a certain 1950s glamour, and the building that dominates Paul Brown’s set in Act I looks decidedly modernist. A spiral staircase leads up to apartments, and this proves to be an important feature with every scene containing some form of cylindrical staircase.
The main difficulty with Act I, however, is that it is simply not believable that a man might be taking his sister to a convent in the setting described, as this has hardly been a standard practice in recent years. Act II, however, finds excellent parallels with modern times as Geronte’s house reveals a gaudy room that clumsily imitates the Rococo, and which puts the emphasis on display. Although we see pink as the dominant colour this is because of ‘wallpaper’ behind the room. The walls themselves are see-through, which reveals the transparency, or fickleness, of Manon and her way of life. That everything is for show is highlighted by the fact that a row of men on theatre seats are introduced for Manon’s ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella’, which is also filmed by a crew. This highlights the modern day obsession with celebrity that Manon is only too happy to entertain.
Sondra Radvanovsky and Aleksandrs Antonenko are excellent as Manon and Des Grieux respectively. Radvanovsky’s soprano is strong and sumptuous and yet is projected in such a way that it still carries elements of sweetness and lightness. This combination is put to good use throughout the opera, but is shown to particular effect in her final heart-wrenching rendition of ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’. Antonenko’s tenor is brilliantly expansive, with its obvious power being tempered by a sensitivity of tone that makes the character feel both passionate and anguished. This revival also sees the secondary characters prove equally strong, with Levente Molnár as Lescaut, Erik Halfvarson as Geronte, Luis Gomes as Edmondo and Emily Edmonds as the Musician contributing, in particular, to the success of the evening.
The acting is also convincing, especially from the central couple. Particularly impressive is the way in which Radvanovsky changes between presenting Manon’s public and private persona after Des Grieux confronts her in Act II. Having just paraded herself in front of strangers, she removes her wig and in an instant reveals herself to be a far more bedraggled and vulnerable creature who is desperate for Des Grieux’ love. At the same time, however, she still reveals a certain expectation that he will come running to her as all men do, showing how confidence is still a key component of her character.
Nevertheless, for all that the performers do well, there are times when the impact of their gestures is undermined by the sets. There is just something about the gaudy pink of Act II which means that when Des Grieux pours his heart out against it the emotion does not feel as strong as it otherwise would. Although the set legitimately highlights the facile nature of Manon and society in general, unfortunately it is also responsible for making what should be genuinely moving moments seem shallow, because the context in which they are rendered feels so garish.
However, the staging for Acts III and IV feels far more powerful and relevant than two years ago because of events that have unfolded since. Act III sees the women to be deported cruelly paraded before a modern day crowd who treat a serious issue as sport and entertainment. The mentality they display seems reminiscent of that seen in the various American presidential election rallies that were all over the news. When Manon and Des Grieux are ‘united’ at the end of the act the crowd cheer, and, although this reveals a positive emotion for once, it still feels like a facile reaction from people who could have as easily been responding to the proclamation of a feel-good message at a rally.
Manon, Des Grieux and all of the deportees are thrown through a poster pointedly proclaiming ‘naiveté’, and as it is ripped we realise the horror behind the facade. The set is then rotated so that the ‘back’ of the poster takes us directly to Louisiana, making us instantly equate the protagonists’ demise with the end of the American dream. Manon and Des Grieux find themselves on a deserted interstate highway, which introduces a sense of irony because it is man-made, suggesting that the people they desperately need are so close and yet so far. At the same time, however, it also feels entirely appropriate because the concrete we see so readily speaks of barrenness and futility.
The highway is ripped up and thus comes to an abrupt halt, showing how this is the end of the road for Manon and Des Grieux. However, with the highway in the desert feeling quintessentially American, by extension it suggests that this is the end of the road for America as a whole, a feeling that has perhaps been in the air since the conclusion of the presidential election. As a result of these ‘serendipities’, this production seems to come into sharper focus on its first revival, while Sir Anthony Pappano is clearly in his element conducting Puccini’s enigmatic score.