“We don’t call ladies like Manon Lescaut “fallen women” any more, but there are plenty of modern-day Manons around. As Julie Burchill once observed: “Wherever there are rich men trying not to feel old, there will be young girls trying not to feel poor.”
That is surely Jonathan Kent’s view too. Bringing Puccini’s earliest hit to the Royal Opera stage for the first time in 30 years, he dumps the 18th-century context of Prevost’s novel, and the late 19th-century world of Puccini himself, in favour of a thoroughly contemporary interpretation.
Paul Brown’s ingenious set starts off as half a modern apartment block (albeit improbably fringed with fairy lights) and half the casino in which Maurizio Muraro’s gross, oligarch-like Geronte will take advice from Christopher Maltman’s superb, pimpish Lescaut on how to seduce Kristine Opolais’s opportunist Manon.
Not that she needs much seduction. By Act II the set has swivelled to reveal Manon, now a perv’s delight in a thigh-revealing Barbie doll outfit, knee-high socks and blonde wig, giving live webcam sex shows from Geronte’s mansion to an audience of leering, bald lechers. Later, Geronte’s olde-worlde madrigal is turned by Manon into a bit of girl-on-girl action.
Well, that’s one way of upstaging the supposed main attraction of this show: Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux. Kent’s exuberant directorial inventions don’t stop there. Manon’s trial and deportation is staged as a grotesque reality-TV court scene. There is one surreal moment when the entire lighting rig is lowered to become part of the action. And instead of the Louisiana desert, she and Des Grieux end up on that quintessential symbol of urban desolation: a buckled, derelict flyover.”
5 stars: Richard Morrison, The Times, 18 June 2014
“Flamboyantly designed by Paul Brown, Jonathan Kent’s production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut could not be more different from Laurent Pelly’s daintily stylised Belle Epoque version of Massenet’s take on the story which we saw in the same house four months ago. …
Kent presents Manon’s Parisian high-life in contradiction to both music and plot. Puccini’s fashionable courtesan becomes a soft-porn star reigning amid vulgar bling; the chaste beauty of Opolais’s singing is undermined by the voyeuristic sexuality she is directed to portray, and her exiling becomes reality tv on a seedy waterfront.”
4 stars: Michael Church, The Independent, 18 June 2014
“Kent was greeted by boos at his curtain call, presumably by sections of the audience who would prefer to keep the real world out of the opera house. They should go home and look up “verismo” in the musical dictionary.”
4 stars: Barry Millington, Evening Standard, 18 June 2014
“It is a brave director who tries to update Puccini. For a group of works commonly (if erroneously) described as “realistic”, Puccini’s operas are resistant to being uprooted from their original settings – so this new production of Manon Lescaut takes a big risk in reimagining the opera as a disturbing tract on sexual exploitation in the modern world.
By and large the opera profits from it.”
4 stars: Richard Fairman, The Fincial Times, 18 June 2014
“Kent has a sure feel for the underlying truths of this story, and … this new production tells it directly and convincingly. … It is one of those productions where each element works superbly, creating a whole that is so much more than the sum of its impressive parts. The Royal Opera has another winner.”
Keith Clarke, MusicalAmerica.com, 25th June 2014