Tale of Two Puccinis

I’ve been behind on my jottings, and the performances to be reflected upon are mounting up. For a start, there are these two Puccinis, both from The Royal Opera: their recent outing of the Jonathan Kent Tosca and a new production, also by Jonathan Kent, of Manon Lescaut.

The Tosca is a well-known commodity: replacing the Zeffirelli, it was calculated not to frighten any horses and enjoys a similar visual grandeur and narrative simplicity. After a 30-odd year gap, Kent has brought back Manon Lescaut with decidedly less caution. He has attempted to bring to modern audiences some of the shock experienced by the first readers of the 1731 Abbé Prevost novel, and to do so, Kent and his design team have moved the action to a swanky three-storey hotel-cum-casino; this is followed by an Amsterdam-style glass-encased brothel; thereafter to the quayside for scenes of trafficked women; and ending on a motorway flyover as a contemporary vision of the ‘desert’ depicted in the original libretto.

There are all sorts of issues to pick at, such as whether transportation (or ‘exile’ as referred to on the surtitles) works as a punishment in a contemporary reading, or whether it’s ever believable that this particular Manon would be on her way to a convent. However, it started out being relatively easy to overlook these minor questions, as a coherent story appeared to be unfolding. The first suggestion that things were going off the rails was the descent of the entire opera house lighting rig for about two minutes of the lamplighter’s [geddit?] serenade. The trafficking scene of Act 3 had a modern, voyeuristic power to it, although the ‘business’ distracted significantly from the central Manon-Des Grieux drama. However, the major let-down, quite major when it came, was the final act. Perched high up (too high up for some viewers) on a motorway flyover – all shattered concrete, crumbling tarmac and twisted metal – the two leads played out their final descent. The result was – alas! – cold, fussy and again distracting, so that Kaufmann and Opolais had their work cut out bringing the focus back on to their characters’ respective tragedies. It was a respectable attempt to update a classic to the modern era, but ultimately I think too much was thrown at it, and thus too much lost in the retelling, to count it a success.

Musically, Manon Lescaut was a tremendous night in the theatre. Kaufmann played the Des Grieux of Act 1with an easy-going charm, and in Act 2 added a volatile temperament when faced with Manon’s very wearying coquettish excesses. By Acts 3 and 4, the intensity was ratcheted up and the wide dynamic of his dark-toned tenor brought out the alternation of despair and tenderness for the dying Manon. Kristīne Opolais perfectly played the character as she was conceived in Kent’s production, aided by the slightly hard edge to her soprano. The immediacy of her acting was vocal as well as physical, for example nicely capturing the shift from ecstatic reunion with Des Grieux to sulky regret at having to leave luxury behind (even if that line did seem comical, given what the rest of us were looking at when she lamented her departure).

As a sleazy Lescaut, Christopher Maltman bought a baritonal solidity and athletic energy to the part. Maurizio Muraro was a commanding Geronte, revelling in his denunciation of Manon. Pappano powered through the score with a full-blooded thirst for the drama, pausing notably over an exquisitely played Intermezzo. Alas, though, for all these wonderful musical values, ultimately the performance was fighting to overcome a interpretation, particularly in terms of its visuals, which weighed the piece down and distracted from a relatively simple and moving story.

Whilst Pappano was one of the major contributors to the success of Manon Lescaut, unfortunately the superhuman Plácido Domingo, who jumped down into the pit to lead Tosca, made less of a mark. His expansive tempi were not in themselves problematic, but for Act 1 in particular, things appeared marred by a hesitancy and muddiness which held back the unfolding drama. Mercifully, a bit of spark and energy was rediscovered for Acts 2 and 3. Domingo had an uncomfortable habit of stopping for expected applause at the end of arias, which led to bum-clenching moments when it didn’t come…

The undoubted star – and what a star! – was Sondra Radvanovsky as the temperamental prima donna. A big, juicy, lustrous voice and a fearsome stage presence, she was thrilling in everything she sang. Her Vissi d’arte was beautifully unfolded, and she shaded beautifully so that her big sound was far from being her only attribute. She revelled in the comedy of Act 1, and Tosca’s flighty jealousy, and brought a febrile vulnerability to the singer as she was taunted by Scarpia. To cap it all, when it came to leaping from the battlements, she was breathtakingly bold: a one-woman coup de théâtre, as she stood on the ledge, called down God’s judgment on Scarpia, folded her arms across her chest and just dropped backwards off the parapet…

The men in her life on this occasion were solid performances, rather than outstanding: Riccardo Massi, in a house debut, had an attractive middle voice and shaped the role both dramatically and vocally – the latter being key to a better-than-anticipated E lucevan le stelle – but when the dramatic temperature was up he sounded effortful and a bit strained in the expanses of the ROH. Lucio Gallo did slyness nicely, but lacked menace as Scarpia – though he was one half of a wonderful final tussle with Radvanovsky’s desperate heroine.

So, as the ROH season enters that thrilling final dash to a close: two Puccinis, one director, two very different styles. One a brave but (for me) ultimately unsuccessful attempt to modernise an early Puccini success. The other, a revival of a production that already seemed old-fashioned on the very day it opened to replace the last old-fashioned production. Somewhere in the middle there must be a that holy grail: a well thought-through, not over-designed, reinterpretation of a repertory classic that respects the original work and its evolution but wraps it in a contemporary context. Or maybe we’ll just carry on veering from one side of the pendulum swing to the other, enjoying having our brains taxed (or sometimes not) along the way… and, of course, enjoying some stunning singing and playing at the same time…

As I write that, I have Maria Stuarda very firmly in mind, of which more anon when I have seen it a second time on Tuesday…

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