In Laurent Pelly’s 2010 production of Manon, now enjoying its first revival, the diagonal is king. It is woven into each of Chantal Thomas’s six sets and provides a constant to the disparate scenes in which Manon and Des Grieux find themselves as they journey through life. It manifests itself in the steps within the courtyard at Amiens, the slope of the roof on Manon and Des Grieux’ rooftop apartment in Paris, the promenade of the city’s Cours-la-Reine, and the sloped columns in Saint-Sulpice.
While, however, this ‘connecting device’ is effective in providing a sense of continuity, it sometimes feels as if its mandatory incorporation has forced the hand of certain set designs, and some have ended up more successful than others. Act I presents a modernist courtyard, topped with an entire town in the same style, only much smaller. Although chorus members provide colour by popping out of windows in the walls to sing, Ermonela Jaho’s Manon has to go out of her way to fill the large area visually in ‘Je suis encor’ tout étourdie’. Conversely, Act II’s rooftop flat with its angular staircase creates a highly limited space for expression and action, and is not the best area for illustrating the two separate scenes (Lescaut conversing with Des Grieux, and Manon with De Brétigny) that occur simultaneously.
Other sets, however, fare much better. Act III set on the Cours-la-Reine, with its white hues and Joël Adam’s subtle lighting, truly captures the spirit of fashionable Paris. Similarly, the gambling scene occurs in a green expressionist interior, the tiered diagonals proving highly effective when Manon, Des Grieux and Lescaut face in different directions, and when the four policemen arrange themselves in various formations across the different levels.
As Manon, Ermonela Jaho reveals a soprano instrument of immense vibrancy, clarity and beauty. Sometimes in Act I its wonderful maturity feels slightly ill suited to capturing the vivaciousness of the then over-excited girl, but this difficulty does not persist. She puts in a storming performance in ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’, carrying off a wide range of vocal effects and sometimes paring her sound down to bring out the line as it might be spoken, yet still in the most musical manner imaginable.
Matthew Polenzani as Des Grieux is very effective with his clean, expansive and highly pleasing sound, and when he throws himself into ‘Ah! Fuyez, douce image’ the result is magnificent. Chemistry is sometimes lacking between the pair, which may be because a few too many of their hand gestures focus on bringing out their own feelings and character rather than being directed towards their opposite, but this is not a uniform problem throughout the evening.
Audun Iversen as Lescaut maximises his bass instrument and pulls off ‘A quoi bon l’économie’ handsomely. Christophe Mortagne proves a master of comic gestures and timing as Guillot, Alastair Miles’ strong voice contributes to an excellent portrayal of Le Comte des Grieux, William Shimell is subtle and engaging as De Brétigny while Simona Mihai, Rachel Kelly and Nadezhda Karyazina (the latter pair Jette Parker Young Artists) excel as Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume produces a beautifully balanced and yet sumptuous and ringing sound. If at the most climatic moments one feels that the orchestra could let rip just a little more, this is the sole criticism that might be levied against a very fine performance.
The final scene is executed to perfection. It is set on a road that appears to run through a wasteland, and the fact that the destination remains unclear beyond the horizon could be a metaphor for the journey through life. Here Manon’s own journey concludes prematurely, in full sight of everyone, and Jaho and Polenzani wring every last ounce of emotion from this most powerful of endings.
Ailyn Pérez plays Manon on 31 January and 4 February.