Manon Lescaut

Date: June 28, 2014
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Manon Lescaut: Kristīne Opolais
Lescaut: Christopher Maltman
Chevalier des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann
Geronte de Ravoir: Maurizio Muraro
Edmondo: Benjamin Hulett
Dancing Master: Robert Burt
Singer: Nadezhda Karyazina
Lamplighter: Luis Gomes
Naval Captain: Jeremy White
Act III Sergeant: Jihoon Kim
Innkeeper: Nigel Cliffe
Chorus: Royal Opera Chorus

Royal Opera
Antonio Pappano, conductor
Jonathan Kent, director

Manon Lescaut, written by Puccini perhaps at a time of the composer’s greatest personal and financial misery, provides a breathing room of idealistic escapism for the composer. In Manon, Puccini found a heroine who couldn’t fail to win the hearts of all, and in Des Grieux, a hero who would follow his love to the end of the Earth. In real life, however, Puccini could barely afford his rent in Milan, and his relationship with the married Elvira was met with fierce opposition from all corners and, in any case, not going well. In other words, Manon Lescaut the operatic output was the unwavering stability yearned for but not (yet) achieved in Puccini’s life.

In Jonathan Kent’s vision, most of that sentiment remains intact, though not without some questionable designs. Act I has all the proper trappings required by Puccini’s libretto – a motel, a staircase, a balcony and a casino, but the set, designed by Paul Brown, looks more like a trucker’s stop along the section of Route 66 closest to Las Vegas, than some casino-land, as suggested in the programme notes, in Baden-Baden. Geronte’s house is a stage within a stage where Manon gyrates feverishly in a peep show to attract the salivating glances of customers. By doing away with the musicians in the traditional dance scene and making Manon a total object of desire, Kent seems willing to assert the point that Manon couldn’t resist winning the hearts of all, even if in a customer-performer relationship — yet in doing so, seems willing to rob the audience of a good dance scene that is to be expected in the opera. Dressed in a pink Lolita nightwear, Lady-Gaga thigh-high white stockings and trashy blonde wig, Kristine Opolais’ Manon was there to demolish any notion of faux elegance, focusing squarely instead on the exploits of visual voyeurism. It was hard to believe that in Puccini’s original vision, this girl was actually about to go to a convent. The stage within a stage is boxed by a prison-like Teflon-made dollhouse, as if Manon is an object unwillingly trapped in the status quo. But she is not, as she seems happy to please her peeping onlookers and happier when she lingers on to fetch her jewelry even as Des Grieux is anxious to drag her out of the malice.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Des Grieux was noncommittal at first, with a weakly sung L’amor that was barely audible on top of the orchestra. The German tenor recovered enough to deliver a fine but not particularly inspiring Donna non vidi mai. His condition would stay sub-par (by Kaufmann’s typically high standards anyway), until Act II, when he blossomed in the face of Kristine Opolais’ formidable voice. Opolais had a sizzling top, seemingly limitless output in the glorious passages, and a sweet legato in the subtler passages. Though questionable in aesthetic taste, the dollhouse box turned out to be an acoustic aid that effectively helped to project the singers’ voice, especially in the Act II duet. Maurizio Muraro had an off-night as Geronte, as his output came with very little detail and support. In the thankless role of Lescaut, Christopher Maltman turned out just fine, with firm support and plenty of firepower to raise above Pappano’s orchestra.

There is rather something quite remarkable about Pappano’s conducting. The orchestra sounded resolute and dramatic, especially towards the end of Acts II and IV. A sense of drama was clearly evident, accomplished by measured, if in slightly slower tempi, build-up of layers upon layers of sonic goodness. The cello intermezzo in Act III was particularly devastating and melancholic. Towards the end, the orchestra came about in one voice, fully armed, committed as one, but never vulgar or drawing attention to itself. With this sort of fine casting and outstanding orchestral performance, no flaws in the production could dampen the spirit of the night.

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act II: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act IV: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

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Benvenuto Cellini

Date: June 27, 2014
Location: London Coliseum, London.

Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres
Teresa: Corinne Winters
Balducci: Pavlo Hunka
Fieramosca: Nicholas Pallesen
Pope Clement VII: Willard White
Ascanio: Paula Murrihy
Francesco: Nicky Spence
Bernardino: David Soar
Pompeo: Morgan Pearse

English National Opera
Edward Gardner, conductor
Terry Gilliam, director

Terry Gilliam, most famous for being a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, made his debut as an opera director in 2011 with in an ENO production of Berlioz’s Faust. The enormous success of that collaboration led to another invitation this year: to direct Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s rarely-performed opera semiseria.

Loosely based on the life of the 16th century sculptor, the opera concerns the casting of a statue of Perseus, which Cellini struggles to complete but eventually does. That much remains true to history, but, in Berlioz’s version, the rest extrapolates from there. Python hoopla was on offer early on: supersized puppets, jugglers and stiltwalkers invaded the Coliseum during the overture while colorful confetti rained down on the audience. A carnival mask and a skull were so gigantic that, when paraded down the orchestra aisles, they humbled even the not-so-trivial size of the Coliseum. The sheer extravagance of the set, designed by Gilliam and Aaron Marsden, could be felt from the carpentry of Balducci’s residence to the Mardi Gras scene, in which over hundred performers and chorus members established an evening of festive splendor. Cellini’s studio and foundry presented in Act II were comparatively more modest: Cellini’s various works were depicted with silly cardboard cutouts. The triviality of the cutouts provided perhaps an important dramatic contrast with the enormous head of Medusa, placed right in the middle of the stage, suggesting the monstrosity of the Perseus project. But a more cynical view, where a stylistic contrast between Act I’s lavish abundance and Act II’s relative economy seems awkward and evident, would be that the production simply ran out of budget by the time Act II had to be built. Perhaps this contrast is precisely Gilliam’s very literal take on the semiseria genre. Michael Spyres, as Cellini, shaped his lines with care and grace. Trained originally as a baritone, his lower registers imparted a deep, fatherly tone. At the higher registers, a resonant head voice projected a bright, almost trumpety sound. While anticipating the arrival of Cellini early on in Act I, Corinne Winters’ Teresa, Cellini’s love interest, singing with emotion and gusto, exposed a character torn between love (for Cellini) and duty (to her family). Edward Gardner, spotted with more than a few strands of white hair, led a brisk and masterful reading of the score.

Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Carnival performer, in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Head of Medusa and a golden Pope, in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.