Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House

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This is the story of a young impressionable girl who has a bit of a thing for riches and sex — a common theme in opera. From an early age she is attracted to wealth, power and male attention that paid well. It could be said that this all stems from the sad fact that in the 19th Century (lasting well into our times) a girl from a less than prosperous background had few employment choices. She could go into “service” — a nanny, a governess, a lady’s maid, even a skivvy if she was really low down on the economic scale — or become a whore. In the 19th century there were many grades of prostitution: the prettiest, most stylish and expensive at the top (courtesans, Camille and La Belle Otero, for example), then at the bottom and cheap — the streetwalker. Emile Zola made good note of this in “Nana.”

Manon is beautiful. Her brother is her pimp. She falls in love at a chance meeting as she is on her way to a convent with Des Grieves, a student, and runs off with him. She soon tires of poverty, leaves him and agrees to becomes the mistress of a very rich older man, introduced by her brother. Thus she starts her life of indolence and vice. After a time with him, she is again bored. Manon has what might be called attention deficit Disorder. She simply cannot stick to one man.

In Puccini’s version, she is about to be whisked away by Des Grieves from her life of bored luxury for a life of true love, but feels she must steal money from her rich protector to ease the way. As she is collecting his money and jewels, the gendarmes arrive and she is arrested and thrown in jail. Manon is then shipped off to the New World with others of the oldest profession for a justly deserved punishment. Des Grieves accompanies her in an act of ultimate self-sacrifice.

Now ordinarily I would suspend judgment and go with the flow of music, which is magnificent. The story is age-old. Woman of easy virtue ruins various men, and through suffering understands the real values — love and loyalty. Unfortunately Jonathon Kent, the director, decided to place the entire action amongst the Millennials, with Manon as Miley Cyrus. The second scene of the first act is set in a pink and gold bedroom (Trump anyone?), where she is attended by various personal servers for hair, nails and makeup. She yawns. She writhes and wriggles like a pole dancer. The tenor, Latvian Aleksandrs Antonenko, as DesGrieves, bellows like a moose. This sizable tenor sings with little emotional nuance. His attempt at lovemaking was risible, and I felt sorry for the soprano being tossed and turned like a salad on the big pink bed.

The next scene takes place on what appears to be an Amsterdam canal where the prostitutes are featured in windows. A Frank Sinatra look-alike in a white dinner jacket leads the action. A huge billboard with the word “Naïveté” dominates. The white-jacketed singer breaks the paper and the (trafficked) girls are herded through the board to the ships where they are to be transported to the New World. In the second part of Act Two we find Manon and Des Grieves on a broken highway overpass somewhere in LA. There has been an earthquake. Manon is cold and thirsty. Des Grieves wanders off down a ladder to find, what, a bottle of San Pelligrino? Left alone, She sings of her fear of abandonment, dying and her many regrets. And what singing! (American/Canadian, Sondra Radvanovsky, is a true and undeniable talent). Des Grieves returns lumbering up the ladder. She dies gorgeously of thirst in his arms. Finish.

The entire audience cheered because the agony was over for all of us. I have a rule to try to never be negative about the Performing Arts, but in this case I was much relieved when the curtain finally fell.

Kaaren Hale

 

 

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