Manon. Massenet. London. Opera World

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I feel like starting the review with the hackneyed phrase of Argentine sports journalism «the hitch is endangered». The hitch is not anything other than number 10 of a football team. According to the classical theory, is the player that sits between the midfielders and strikers, acting as a link between the two, whether recovering balls lost in the area of the adversary, as (and this seems to be the most important) generating the offensive play until the last passes until the front look for the goal or even trying their luck himself. Readers who like football, will have been unnecessary explanation, because they are aware not only of what a hitch or playmaker is, but also know the controversy years revolves around its gradual disappearance in the current tactics, because today, in addition to winning the match, being sought on any other kind of show. I have to confess that of all this I have just learned thanks to Ricardo Piglia.

Don’t panic, we are still in Operaworld… Also in the opera the rules of the game have changed, although in this case it is not clear what kind of show you want to offer: there are many times that we should settle, at best, for the correction of a professional job and give up the legitimate aspiration of enjoying a show that reaches dimensions according to the nature of its kind which are the uniqueness and excellence.

Based on 14 January, the main couple was conducted by Ermonela Jaho and Matthew Polenzani. Despite not possessing a pleasant timbre, it is undeniable that the tenor has a very solvent technique – deserves praise his mastery of dynamics between the pianissimo and the mezzoforte – and a remarkable musical sense, specially equipped for the expression of feelings touching and the melancholy song, as it demonstrated in the aria «in fermant les yeux», fairly acclaimed. However, since the scene of Saint-Sulpice until the end of the opera, he did not pass from just correct, as expected in a tenor whose conditions are still closer to belcanto or Mozart than of lyrical heroes of Massenet.

Jaho is a singer rather more irregular, with considerable problems on the tuning of the middle voices in the acute area (of which the Massenet score is filled), as it was evident already from the presentation of the first act scene and especially in the gavotte of the third Act, among other passages. A bit better in the Saint-Sulpice scene, is not up to the Act of Hotel de Transylvanie in which the soprano shows us the best of herself as a singer, while it was not bright enough. The last act, which does not present special singing demands, was met with a primary and conventional scenic interpretation that tarnish the achievements made so far by the singer that counts with the physique de rôle. In any case, it seems fair to foist the soprano the responsibility or at least not all, because almost no difference was appreciated in regards to the scenic interpretation between Ermonela Jaho and Aylin Perez (who sang two of the seven programmed functions), so it surely concerned a decision by the stage director. Or a lack of decision, which it would also be possible.

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With a voice more regular in broadcast safer in tuning (despite some notorious false notes, such as the acute that crowns the entrance of Manon at Cours-la-Reine) but less accurate in the passages of agility, the American soprano Aylin Perez saved the ballot, but not overcome the right thing. It is justice to highlight that Polenzani cast more meat on the spit in the first function with Perez, in an approach to the role in the style of Henry Legay or Alain Vanzo, although not reaching the excellences of the latter.

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Among secondary, deserves to be highlighted Audun Iversen, in the role of cousin Lescaut: voice fresh and of uniform color; Christophe Mortagne (as Monfortaine Guillot) gave good account of being a specialist in the roles of character of the French repertoire. The hiring of William Shimell for a role as meager as the one of Brétigny is justified only by the sensuality that it oozes in the sentence «Vous serez reine par la Beauté!» Ecoutez-moi! » Perfectly cropped and precise voices of the fatties (Rachel Kelly), Poussette (Simona Mihai) Javotte and Rosette (Nadezhda Karyazina).

As usual in the theatre of Covent Garden, the best came at the hands of the Orchestra led by Emmanuel Villaume, who knows to materialize the colorful wealth typical of the style of Massenet. Perhaps most notable was a careful concertation of all scenes, including the less relevant of the work, which usually present greater difficulties in that regard, as the first scene of the first act.

The staging was by the French director Laurance Pelly, frequent guest of the ROH. In this, as in most of his works which has seen who writes, manifested three unforgivable sins: lack of unity, downtimes, and superficiality. But let’s go by parts… As it is well known, the action of Manon Lescaut originally takes place during XVIII century. On this occasion, he sold us the scene is transferred to the era in which Massenet composed the work (1884). However, in reality, this is only true in an Act and in another scene: namely, the first scene with chorus of the first Act, and in the third act. The rest of the opera is set in different eras: the second act could be between 1920 and 1940, Act IV is a clandestine party from the 1950s and the last act might say that it is timeless. At least, is what anyone could reasonably deduce from costume designs (signed by the own Pelly and perhaps most remarkable of the aesthetic part of the production); not of the scenery, which is intended to be both evocative and timeless, but ends up resulting in ineffective and presenting even a trashy realization. And I do not think that it would suffer budget problems, because it’s a co-production between the Met, la Scala, the Capitole de Toulouse and the ROH… It seems that we need to remember that everything that is placed on stage (including interpreters) should look like more than it is and not less!

Developing a work at different times should not surprise today to anyone and it might be a very suitable solution for certain titles; now, what twist arises to work with these changes of atmosphere in particular? Do with them new interpretative keys are shed? It doesn’t seem so. It rather seems, that there is any dramatic justification and that the criterion was completely arbitrary. Perhaps simply chosen esthetics have been well articulated that are easily acceptable to the majority of the public, since they are part of Occidental iconic repertoire of some common background of consumers of cultural products. We are all able to recognize a walk along the Seine with characters of Belle Époque thanks to the turn of the 19th paint, similar to a clandestine casino from the 40’s or 50’s is familiar from noir and B-series films featuring dangerous blondes who end up falling in love with a man that always should be – and never is-Humphrey Bogart. Now, such a solution, without a specific dramatic reading, hurts the proposal because there is no backbone that gives unity. As a result, one feels to be contemplating a hodgepodge of unconnected and superficial things without a recognizable speech. And it is, to some extent, this lack of unity, not more than a further consequence of the serious problem of this production: we are watching a simplistic and superficial approach that can be disconcerting, even up to ridicule.

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Allow me to place two examples: Act II, in the room of Paris apartment. Everything runs crystal clear so far that De Brétigny warns Manon that that same night of Grieux will be kidnapped by order of his own father. After this scene, from the moment in which the heroine sing his goodbye to the simple things discovered along with the lover she has decided to leave for a life of luxury, should be clear that the doubt that arises in her when shortly after Grieux described the kind of friendly life who she dreams for both. That doubt is that causes that Manon attempt to retain rapturously in De Grieux room to prevent her abduction. In the production of Pelly Manon doubt is not smelt anywhere. And why this question is so important in the development of the plot? The answer seems simple: she will continue sheltering doubt for years, despite having reached the wealth and luxury that wanted; therefore, when she learns that De Grieux had decided to consecrate himself as a priest, she does not doubt on entering in the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, because she could not accept that her lover has forgotten what she meant. And this is the core of the work! Manon is a portrait of who, seeking desperately increase the value of its existence by the accumulation, meets love putting upside down all of her ideas and beliefs, and discovering that the value of her existence is herself (which does not mean really until the end of the work). This opera is composed primarily of those worries, whims, of fear, of the pain of loss, unexpected decisions – erratic and right at the same time – and unexpected twists of fortune. How are we going to empathize with the plight of the Manon if none of these elements come into play in the scène? How are we going to thrill with a conventional scenic proposal where the characters don’t seem to be moved by the intentions, interests and the reactions that are interwoven between drama and plot, but because just the script dictates it?

With these Wicker, it is understandable that at least in the two functions to which I attended, attendees have laughed during the most intense and passionate of the work (the duo from Saint-Sulpice), which would be as ridiculous as if the public of a function of «A Streetcar Named Desire» would laugh out loud at the moment in which Blanche DuBois is raped by her brother-in-law Polish. The comic effect is caused by the lack of authenticity that Pelly served us the work. Someone will ask if perhaps there some formula that makes us credible a duo of five minute in which a man throws overboard their years of  internal fighting and yields to passion with a woman who has deceived and abandoned him. Thus raised, seems quite difficult to achieve, but that is precisely the work of the stage director: find the appropriate language (within the limits allowing the theatrical Convention of the genre) so the great folly of De Griers is plausible and thus occurs the effect that pursues the music of Massenet. Otherwise, the scene won’t be more than any priest horniness… And at this point, that only provokes laughter. That is why, at this rate, with the warmth with which we are used to from some regisseur behind politically correct formulas, which do not disturb anyone and they are sovereignly vapid, we would end up preferring staying at home listening to the recording of Manon’s from Victoria de los Ángeles and Nicolai Gedda… where at least they sing… and how!

What hitch is that is becoming extinct in opera? The great voices like those of the past? It is possible. In London, seem to continue complying with not merely right, with what is required by discographer Labels and the covers of the lyrical magazines or the recommendations of some singer agencies more concerned in commissions than developing appropriate and progressive vocal singers who they represent. Scenes that know how to make us present the drama that is represented? Without a doubt, directors that take seriously the gender and do not only put a bow here and a picture hat beyond, are needed. Conductors capable of making these works fly? Of course, and of these, many appear here in London. As sang Germán Coppini «Bad times for poetry»… In London, they are as correct as boring times of lyric…

Raúl Asenjo

Manon, comic opera in five acts.

Music: Jules Massenet

Libreto: Henri Meihac and Philippe Gille, based on the novel by Abbot Prévost «l’Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut»

Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume

Scene Director: Laurent Pelly

Reset responsable: Christian Räth

Scene Design: Chantal Thomas

Costume Design: Laurent Pelly

Costume helper: Jean-Jacques Delmotte

Lights design: Joël Adam

Choreography: Lionel Hoche

Royal Opera House Chor Director: Renato Balsadonna

Royal Opera House Orchestra Maestro: Peter Manning

Manon: Ermonela Jaho y Ailyn Perez

De Grieux: Matthew Polenzani

Lescaut: Audun Iversen

Guillot de Morfontaine: Christophe Mortagne

De Brétigny: William Shimell

Le Comte Des Grieux: Alastair Miles

Poussette: Simona Mihai

Javotte: Rachel Kelly

Rosette: Nadezhda Karyazina

Posadero: Lynton Black

Two Soldiers: Elliot Goldie y Donaldson Bell

Traducción: Mª. García-Rosado