With the action shunted from early 1700s Paris to a clumsy modern urban development, part aparthotel, part casino, the theme of Puccini's opera is sharpened to a point: pretty close to home a young woman's life can be shredded with ease by the sort of unscrupulous man who, if justice is done, ends up in our morning papers.
When Manon is taken up by a sugar daddy, the jewels and luxury lifestyle come at a price: her "dancing master" is making a soft porn movie for this Geronte de Revoir and his leering old friends. Then the humiliation of women such as Manon, driven into sex work by misfortune or misjudgment, is given a topical spin: here is a reality TV show roll call of the fallen, fit only for deportation, before a whooping crowd.
All this is excellently carried off by a star cast and energised chorus under Sir Antonio Pappano in a production that understands that important if distasteful truths about life and superb music-making are not incompatible, but two sides of the same coin.
In the title role, the impressive American/Canadian soprano Sandra Radvanovsky, giving a performance of convincing physical sinuousness, has all the colours of the rainbow in arias and ensemble numbers that call for a vast range of emotions. She strips down to not much more than an animal howl in moments of greatest pain, prepared to sacrifice self-serving loveliness in her pursuit of real character.
Radvanovksy made her Covent Garden debut in 2006 since when roles have included Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore and the title role in Puccini's later masterpiece, Tosca. On the strength of her Manon, you would put a big, big tick against any forthcoming appearance in London.
As her student lover Des Grieux, the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, an ROH Cavaradossi in Tosca, hit his stride after a wild start, but sounded more secure when not let out on his own. Perhaps someone will have a word with him about British modesty at curtain calls before he sings Calaf in the Covent Garden revival of Turandot next summer.
But the Hungarian baritone Levente Molnár, as Manon's shiftless and manipulative brother and supposed guardian gives a fantastic performance, as dependable musically as his character is unreliable. And while an ROH favourite, American bass Eric Halfvarson, as Geronte, displayed an unfamiliar oscillation in the voice, this was more than made up for by his coolly menacing presence.
The vast Orchestra of the Royal Opera House is in particularly fine form, fuelling the unstoppable passion on stage while never slipping anchor. And the heart-stopping solo cello and violin work that opens the Entr'acte served as a useful reminder that Puccini was not only the master of opera: he wrote chamber music too. That may be the key to his wide-screen yet intimate operas, and when one of those is realised as well as this Manon Lescaut, it all adds up.
|What||Manon Lescaut review, Royal Opera House|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
22 Nov 16 – 12 Dec 16, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£9 - £175|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|