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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Nabucco

Date: April 6, 2013
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Production: Daniele Abbado
Location: Covent Garden, London.

This production was supposed to be Leo Nucci’s triumphant moment. Nucci was supposed to be the headliner, in a new Covent Garden production on the eve of Verdi’s bicentennial. As the anointed King of Babylon he would bow to no one except the Verdi gods.

And then Placido Domingo entered the fray. He would not only sign onto the production, but sign onto the title role. And it would be his role debut on the floor where he initially debuted, as a tenor, some forty years ago. Naturally, the press zoomed in on the Domingo storyline, casually forgetting that the King of Babylon has long been anointed. Nucci would still open the production, but all eyes focused on Domingo’s role debut a fortnight later. Poor Leo.

Poorer still, was Nucci’s performance tonight. His voice, assertive, brimmed with cracking firepower. His timbre properly flexed to reveal one of a relentless boxer before the interval, and one of a hapless aging man thereafter. In terms of projection, his ringing high notes easily caught at the end of the upper slips. When Nabucco challenges Abigaille to take the crown from him in “S’appressan gl’istanti”, his voice unleashed with atypical fury. Dramatically, however, Nucci could simply not fit into Daniele Abbado’s empty stage without looking like a lost impala in the vastness of Serengeti. The stage’s relative barrenness made the short and fit baritone look even less regal; without Verdi’s musical cues, his stage entrance as the King of Babylon would have been unnoticeable. Nucci’s body told the story of the production’s problems, as his hands seemed to relish but could not find a prop to hold onto. Nucci’s body showed up, but never inhabited the stage. He moved about, but never occupied. Domingo may not be a better baritone, but he would surely occupy the stage with better dramatics and authority. In the rest of the cast, Liudmyla Monastyrska provided a subtle but effective Abigaille, while Marianna Pizzolato offered good dramatics and reasonably adequate grasp of Fenena’s formidable passages. Vitalij Kowaljow, as Zaccaria, was comfortable in his range, and seemed much more ready and determined to make his stage presence known, even in Abbado’s precarious nothingness. Even for those opera goers who are not familiar with the plot line, the stage aura of Zaccaria and Nabucco foretold from the very beginning the latter’s eventual fall from grace.

Nicola Luisotti made the orchestra sound charming, while the warm chorus shone brightly and in one coherent whole. The stage actors – spending a majority of their time looking into the audience – rarely looked at each other on stage, perhaps because they did not feel they belonged there. And they shouldn’t, because the stage offered very little for them to react against. There is nothing wrong with a grey-shaded, simple production, but something must not be right if I almost felt like I paid a fortune to go to an un-staged concert version of Nabucco.

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera's Nabucco

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera’s Nabucco.

La Bayadere

Date: April 5, 2013
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Choreography by Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa

Royal Ballet

Orchestra of the Royal Opera (orchestra)

The Royal Ballet opens its spring season with La Bayadere, Marius Petipa’s Indian-themed gem. Alina Cojocaru, originally headlined as Nikiya, was forced to withdraw due to an unspecified injury. In her replacement was Roberta Marquez, the Company’s principal who appeared with a hint of nervous hesitation and the unease of a school child in her maiden school bus ride alone. Her physical body exposed more of that unpreparedness, especially when she was going from double to single pointe during the basket dance. But her sensual expressiveness saved her, and whatever the physical imperfections might suggest, her face seemed genuinely ready to receive Solor with an uninhibited abandon. As the evening wore on, the liberty with which Marquez afforded her body movements was in striking contrast to the picture-perfect but emotionally more subdued lines that Cojocaru is known to achieve. Opposite Marquez was Federico Bonelli, who attained exceptional forward speed in elevation without compromising the fluidity of his movements. As Solor, Bonelli seemed smarter and more calculated than the sort of man who schizophrenically flip-flopped between his two love interests. That leads to Marianela Núñez’s Gamzetti. Núñez was an incredible dancing wonder, who let loose her swelling stage influence with fiery pirouettes and confident jetes. Yet it was her sweet and radiant smile that won over the audiences, never mind any inkling of her as a potential steward of malice. The drum routine filled with energy, and showcased just how good the male corps at the Royal Ballet can be. The 24-strong shades moved gracefully and in unison, though as the evening moved to a perfect close, one wonders what if the Royal Ballet followed Bolshoi’s lead to file 32 dancers in an even more  luxurious rendition of the shades?

Roberta Marquez, in Royal Ballet's La Bayadere

Roberta Marquez, in Royal Ballet’s La Bayadere.

Les Troyens

Date: July 8, 2012
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: David McVicar
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Les Troyens is a brilliant symphonic piece that, in the hands of a fine orchestra who could express Berlioz’s majestic musical integrity in full, can bring absolute thrill to the audience. In this case, Antonio Pappano delivered an enriching program filled with Berlioz’s famously lush sounds. Pappano’s tendency to emphasize dramatic bits, occasionally allowing the orchestra to roam free, further allowed the piece to come to life in an otherwise mundane, rain-soaked Sunday afternoon in London.

In David McVicar’s production, Troy’s wall curved outwards to form what essentially became a metallic Coliseum. The Trojans were dressed and armored in such a way that seemed to place them in a Crimean War setting. The majestic choral celebration of the Trojans’ liberation, followed by Aeneas’s forceful entrance and his forward-looking interpretation of what was to be, reminded the audience visually, if not also dramatically and historically, of Jean Valjean’s pre-exile scene at the end of Act I of Les Mis the musical. If that association was an unnecessary distraction, McVicar’s vision of Carthage was not: it was a beautiful miniature Indiana Jones set, wrapped around by a wall of Carthaginian passageways and illuminated with a beautiful, rustic yellow tinge. McVicar’s production worked not only because it didn’t obstruct the storytelling but, perhaps more importantly, by utilizing a walled design to place the choral members, whether in the metallic Coliseum in Acts 1 and 2 or the wall of passageways in Act 3, the chorus could spread across the vertical and horizontal spans of the proscenium opening, resulting in a wider, more direct projection of the choral sound.

The showpiece of the production was the Trojan horse, which was made with scrap artillery and metallic tools. To stunning and unforgettable stage effect, it self-immolated in a ball of pyrotechnics at the end of Act 2, and smartly morphed into a humanoid caricature of Hannibal at the end of Act 5, thereby allowing McVicar to link the two stories in Les Troyens together through a connection of their respective symbols of transformation. If there was any serious flaw in McVicar’s concoction, it was his lack of reserved space for the dancers and acrobats in the offer scene at the beginning of Act 3. The Royal Opera dancers and acrobats, as good as they were, simply weren’t given enough room to display their craft.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, as Cassandra, was dramatically involved by virtue of her intense on-stage demeanor and vivid vocal colors. Her dark but controlled timbre allowed her to project a Cassandra that was respectively grievous but authentic. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Dido effused maternal strength as well as a conscientious leader’s frailty. Vocally, Westbroek’s well-supported voice and meticulous phrasing was a reminder that, if she nurses her voice wisely, she could very well become the next great Wagnerian heroine.

Bryan Hymel’s French diction was horrendous. He often chewed away the Romantic syllables in seeming unease and agony. That said, everything else about Jonas Kaufmann’s replacement was superlative. As Aeneas, he stamped his mark as a dramatic high tenor with crisp and secure top notes, delivering a gorgeous and ringing B-natural in Nuit. Even towards the end, he had so much power in reserve that he practically slashed through the orchestra with his final “Italie”. This valiant ending provided the fuel to Pappano’s orchestral fire.

Elsewhere, Brindley Sherratt had a fine outing as Narbal, fully projecting a fatherly and stentorian sensibility and providing much vocal warmth to the lower registers. Ji-min Park phrased Iopas’ legato lines with a flowing grace. In the song of the fields, his high C first appeared with a slight wobble but ended with the kind of ring and comfortable support that left the audience close to the edge of their seats.

Each of the vocal, orchestral and visual bits had their individual moments of glory, but a full realization of Berlioz’s vision of a cohesive grand opera came up just short. The determination to introduce the two-storey Trojan horse, no matter how visually stunning, unfortunately gave rise to the chronological misplacement of the Troy scenes and the corresponding confusion (e.g. not-so-subtle references to the mid-19th century Crimean War preceded subtle references to 1832 Paris uprising). The Carthaginian scenes were generally glorious, but whether it was due to Dido’s questionable appearance (an entire curtain from Marie Antoinette’s Versailles seemed to have fallen all over her) or the lack of breathing space for the offerors, the concept of the whole just fell short of unreserved triumph.

Acts 1 and 2: the metallic Coliseum.

Act 1: This metallic Coliseum reminds me of Act 1 of Les Mis. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Act 3: Carthage.

Act 3: Carthage. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Westbroek's drapery.

Westbroek’s questionable drapery. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.