On Friday 24 January, I caught the revival of the Royal Opera’s Manon. I looked back at my musings on the first run back in 2010, when it functioned as a star-vehicle for Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo. I was distinctly underwhelmed by the piece, and not particularly swept away by the two lead singers. Happily, whilst still remaining not entirely convinced by Massenet in this work, the performance was more impressive.
The stylish conducting of Emmanuel Villaume probably helped, ensuring there was some bite and thrust amid the Massenet soup. Ermonela Jaho has a more delicate and vulnerable appearance – and sound – than the rather more voluptuously glamorous Netrebko, and it made the story all the more convincing and moving. She was on vocal fine form, with some beautiful soft singing. Matthew Polenzani was her Des Grieux, ardent with a clear-toned, secure tenor voice, but keeping his romantic ardour rather more together than Grigolo had done. Other cast members – Alistair Miles as Comte des Grieux, Audun Iversen as Lescaut, William Shimmell as De Brétigny chief amongst them – matched this fine level of dramatic and vocal presentation.
All that being said, and despite a production which I thought functioned much better than I remembered it doing (especially the comic Cours-la-Reine scene, and the bleak closing act), I am not won over by Massenet’s construction of the piece. I read of the Wagnerian influences that it displays, or the opera’s place in the development of realism in the art form, and somehow still can’t quite get inside it. Wonderful moments, some beautiful, delicate arias; some moments of drama that sweep you up, but overall a slightly unsatisfactory feeling that it hasn’t been able to sustain itself and its style over the duration of the whole piece. A slight feeling of ‘so what?’ at the end.