A little over-fond of pleasure, Manon Lescaut is liable to buckle in the face of temptation. Concerned that this irrepressible zest for life will soon prove her undoing, Manon’s parents dispatch their teenage daughter to a convent in the country for a lesson in restraint. That they bid her farewell without a chaperone boggles the mind.
Christian Räth directs this revival of Laurent Pelly’s 2010 production, which depicts the rise and fall of a budding courtesan caught between the competing imperatives of head and heart. Pelly’s version transports the action from its original eighteenth-century setting to the belle époque and the update proves a snug fit – not only because it locates this moral tale in a period synonymous with hedonism and fin-de-siècle glamour, but because the score likewise looks forwards and back.
Massenet’s spritely orchestration blends the dramatic innovation of Wagner with the comforting but traditional melodies of Verdi, and it is not difficult to spot quotations from Tristan and Isolde or the stuff of Puccini’s later borrowings. What we see and hear thus hovers between these extremes – forming a lively dialectic that seeks a ‘third way’ between poles of conservatism and revolution.
We are presented with a number of corollary oppositions: wealth is confronted by poverty; pleasure by duty; youth by age; old by the new. On the face of it, our heroine appears preoccupied by the former, allowing it to deflect her from her ordained destiny and the love of her life. But money here is more than a symbol of exchange value – it represents power and possibilities: the means to seize control and to direct events. Money circulates, and thus can be contested. Pelly links this idea to the nascent struggle for gender equality and to the revolutionary energy of youth – an energy that accepts no limitations and knows no bounds.
Correspondingly, a sense of impending change permeates the mise-en-scène. From act to act, the emboldened set design plots a shift from the certainty of the old order to the moral relativity of a world on the cusp of Modernism. The town square of the opening scene is highly rectilinear – its orthogonals lends gravity and stasis. Later in the opera, these yield to implausible angles, plunging depths, and Flavin-esque neon lighting that challenges our sense of perspective. Admittedly, this means that the style of the production prior to the first interval – whilst evocative –is uninspiring, a tad over-reliant on archetype; happily, the sophistication of what follows more than warrants our patience.
The arrangement of characters within these spaces also suggests conflict building beneath the veneer. There is a clear division between the genders who – dressed identically, formally, and moving in synchrony – constitute close, distinct groups. The repetition may bespeak order, its reproduction and perpetuation, but we may nonetheless detect the beginnings of entropy; the formations move fluidly, giving rise to some fairly comedic moments, and the self-determining figure of Manon moves freely between the lines, a portent of eventual change.
This is certainly not to say that Manon Lescaut has an agenda. In fact, it is difficult to spot an earnest opinion in a word of what she sings. Ermonela Jaho’s performance in the role stresses the character’s ambivalence and ambiguity – repeatedly convincing us of her contradictory convictions. At once we are persuaded of Manon’s innocence and degradation, her haplessness and determination, her impetuousness and conniving. Jaho’s vocal range is similarly impressive. The soprano takes advantage of the libretto’s numerous set-piece arias and clearly enjoys showcasing her talent. Her counterpart, tenor Matthew Polenzani, is equally assured in his role and whose weary resignation at the end of proceedings is particularly heart-rending.
For if this production has a message, it is precisely that: to fail to choose – to be swayed by external events alone – is a betrayal of oneself and one’s successors. Manon’s powers were squandered. She expended them arbitrarily and without focus – scattering them like the hopeful petals she tore from a bouquet in one early scene. The only poverty in Manon is in death, when the life-force and all its potential is exhausted. The upshot of this, and the spring in this opera’s step, is that anything is possible whilst there’s air in our lungs.