It is a brave director who tries to update Puccini. For a group of works commonly (if erroneously) described as “realistic”, Puccini’s operas are resistant to being uprooted from their original settings – so this new production of Manon Lescaut takes a big risk in reimagining the opera as a disturbing tract on sexual exploitation in the modern world.
By and large the opera profits from it. Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s earliest big success and its handling of the drama remains fairly crude. The opera has not been seen at Covent Garden since 1983 and it takes the promise of a pair of stars – Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann, both singing their roles for the first time – to make it a hot ticket.
The director, Jonathan Kent, is lucky to have them. It is hard to imagine many other singers making the steamy scenes of life in the sex industry as believable as this pair do. The high point of Kent’s production comes when Manon is found not ensconced in the luxurious abode of an aristocratic lover, but taking part in an R18-rated film watched by a row of old men in dirty raincoats. After that the problems start when the opera has Manon deported and dying of exposure in a desert in Louisiana. The best this production can do for a modern equivalent is to leave her and Des Grieux to expire on a disused flyover. A photo in the programme suggests they have lost their way somewhere on the A1 near Newcastle – a horrible fate, to be sure, but hardly as desperate as the original.
By this point it is all up to the singing and the lead couple do not disappoint. Kaufmann has done nothing better than this charismatic Des Grieux at the Royal Opera and his dark, brooding tenor sings with unstinting passion and vocal freedom. Opolais, with her shining, slimmer soprano tone, has the intensity to match him as Manon. Christopher Maltman turns Lescaut into a bullish young pup and Maurizio Muraro retains his dignity when Geronte is revealed as the porn film director. With Antonio Pappano getting the Royal Opera orchestra to play as if their lives depended on it, the musical performance set the stage on fire. Future revivals will miss Opolais and Kaufmann. Probably best to catch this Manon Lescaut now while it is still ablaze.