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January 17, 2014 5:39 pm
It is tempting, in the light of the Royal Opera’s latest Massenet performance, to draw parallels between Manon and La traviata , which preceded it by 30 years. Both are based on French novels and located in Paris. Both eulogise a femme fatale who loves demi-mondaine party-going, partnered by a suitor whose heart and crotch triumph over bourgeois codes of conduct – symbolised in each case by a father who turns up at the climax of a card scene. Both end with the soprano dying in the distraught tenor’s arms. Was Massenet trying to “replicate Verdi’s success, but with the original French story untouched by foreigners”, as the Manon programme note suggests?
As a “foreigner”, Verdi universalised his portrait of French society in a way Massenet did not. Verdi also gave his heroine virtues that outweigh her vices, whereas Massenet’s title character is the ultimate gold-digger. Violetta invariably wins an audience’s sympathy, in a way Manon rarely does – at least, not in this oddly emotionless revival of Laurent Pelly’s 2010 staging. Manon needs an interpreter who can mitigate the character’s minx-like fickleness. For all her petite professionalism, Ermonela Jaho lacks charisma, just as Matthew Polenzani misses Des Grieux’s vulnerability. There’s not an iota of sexual chemistry or tension.
The solo and duo scenes are regularly trounced by the choral tableaux, on which Pelly – or his revival director, Christian Räth – seems to have lavished far more attention. The choreography is never less than engaging, especially in the Cours-la-Reine, in which six classical dancers are chased by an army of top-hatted, dirty-minded sugar daddies (cf Degas’s theatre paintings). The updating from 18th century to late 19th, with lopsided décor by Chantal Thomas, seems gratuitous: it neuters Massenet’s period devices and points up the Traviata parallels, to Manon’s obvious disadvantage.
William Shimell and Alastair Miles offer experience in smaller roles, but the best thing about this show is the conducting. Emmanuel Villaume maintains spruce tempi while illuminating the opera’s soft, sensuous core. The next time Covent Garden wants to do Massenet and sell the house (rather than fill it with last-minute cheap offers), it needs star appeal: roll on Werther in 2016.
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