Let there be "love and music and roses" — this is certainly what you will find when you watch the Royal Opera's revival production of Massenet's Manon directed by Laurent Pelly, which tells a tale of love, lust, dissipation and redemption, set during the Belle Epoque. Here is the story of Manon Lescaut, innocent, yet impulsive, who must chose between her true love for the Chevalier des Grieux and the love of a life of luxury and pleasure.
The principal characters are performed and sung with great passion, with the strongly emotional tenor of Matthew Polenzani as the romantic idealist Chevalier des Grieux, providing excellent counter to Ermonela Jaho's vibrant Manon, who progresses from a quixotic, flirtatious schoolgirl on her first trip away from home, to a true femme fatale, who betrays her love for lust of glamour and luxury and a life of hedonistic decadence.
In the Second Act, she sings "Adieu, notre petit table", with such remorse and sadness for her betrayal of her true love, des Grieux. Her aria in the Third Act, "Obeissons quand leur voix appelle", was particularly powerful, and she exerts complete control over her admirers — the gentlemen at the Cours-la-Reine, as much as the audience.
Guillot de Morfontaine, the lustful, but aged seducer, acted by Christophe Mortagne and his courtesans, Poussette (Simona Mihai), Javotte (Rachel Kelly) and Rosette (Nadezhda Karyazina) provide comic relief and sparkling, yet icy, laughter. Audun Iversen is a steady Lescaut, Manon's cousin. The demi-monde world of pleasure is bittersweet and superficial. The strong bass of Alastair Miles, as the Comte des Grieux, particularly in the Act Four, is partiarchial judgement incarnate, crashing down on his son, the Chevalier, and on Manon.
The music, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, flows effortlessly and emotionally throughout the performance, drawing you in.
The costumes, designed by Laurent Pelly, are lushly appointed Belle Epoque designs inspired by the paintings of Manet and Beraud, the women in frilled and furbelowed bustle skirts and trains and the men in top hats and dark coats. The stark contract of the darkly-clad men with the white-clad women in Act Three is particularly stark, and induces a claustrophobic feeling. The women are beautiful birds, trapped in a gilded cage, appearing powerful, but ultimately only objects of desire. This is also apparent with the Opera ballet dancers, who look as if they have stepped out of a Degas painting. Great violence ensues following their wonderfully choreographed dance, with the men surrounding the dancers and carrying them, screaming, off-stage, whether with delight or fear, it is uncertain. In Act 4, Manon, in her bright satin dress, is a vibrant rose amongst the pale colours worn by the other women.
The sets, designed by Chantal Thomas, with lighting by Joel Adam, are in stark contract to the highly-detailed costumes, consisting of minimalist architectural elements: stairs and ramped promenades where the characters interact. The angles become increasingly disquieting, particularly the set of Hotel Transylvanie in the Fouth Act.
"Manon, you temptress!" Give in to the temptation. This is a seductive performance that sparkles like diamonds and champagne.
Manon is at the Royal Opera House 14, 17, 21, 24, 28, and 31 January and 4 February at 6.30 pm.
Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.