Let’s make fun of Massenet. He’s far too popular; he’s ripe for mockery. Just look at how his Manon takes the sting out of the original novel, turning it into a sentimental story to suit late 19th-century bourgeois tastes.
This seems to be the logic behind Coline Serreau’s new production, if indeed there is any logic. In the house magazine, she baldly states that she was not particularly keen on Manon but accepted the offer because she wanted to work on a new staging for the Paris Opera. Nicolas Joel, under fire for choosing such an obvious lollipop to mark the centenary of Massenet’s death, must have groaned when he read those lines.
The result is a hotchpotch of ideas that freely mixes eras and costumes, an incoherent bid for the universal message of Manon’s story that looks like intellectual laziness. The inn in Amiens suggests Grand Central Station but with an 18th-century staircase. Lescaut bounces on as a punk rocker with spiked-up hair. A 1940s greyhound bus disgorges passengers in ancien régime dress including Manon but after abandoning her sweetheart Des Grieux and taking up with de Bretigny, she turns into a modern Miss Bondage with a matching retinue. On her way to Le Havre and deportation, she and the other prostitutes are guarded by, among others, a Roman centurion and a GI. The costume department must have had hours of fun, particularly with the Hôtel Transylvanie scene, which is a punk gambling den and a riot of multi-coloured Mohican coiffure.
The sets (Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine) throughout are splendid. Even some of Serreau’s off-the-wall notions, notably the roller-skating devotees in Saint-Sulpice, would be a sight for sore eyes in the right context but Massenet inevitably ends the evening bruised and battered. The award for crass sabotage goes to the drop-down panel featuring a 1950s US housewife waving to friends in a car which triggers audience laughs just as Des Grieux tiptoes to the end of “En fermant les yeux”.
Giuseppe Filianoti soldiers on but looks aggrieved. More heroic verismo than French lyrical in style – Massenet’s fluid line is often beyond him – his Des Grieux at least fills the house. Franck Ferrari is also in fine voice as Lescaut but the audience has come for Natalie Dessay, whose Manon is only a pale imitation of her first attempt at the role in Geneva in 2004. Serreau makes her play the convent-bound ingénue as a Fame Academy starlet, which is no help, but the real problem is that her overall characterisation is corseted by cautious attempts to ringfence problem areas in her middle register.
Evelino Pido’s conducting is meticulous but short on idiomatic flavour and emotion. The show must have cost a fortune, which means countless revivals. Let’s hope there are enough punk revivalists to fill all those seats.