To Covent Garden last night for the first night of Massenet’s Manon at the Royal Opera House with La Farmer. The story of Manon Lescaut – a Demi Mondaine in Belle Epoque Paris who has chosen the life of a courtesan over love – is an epic role for a soprano. Manon is a character that requires great acting skill as well as an exceptional voice. There is a school of thought that no living diva can surpass Maria Callas for bel canto roles. Having had the privilege to see Ermonela Jaho perform last night I would disagree.
I was only familiar with the aria Adieu Notre Petite Table from Callas’s recordings in her later concert years and was surprised to find that La Divina never performed Manon in full when it seemed written to be part of her repertoire. Callas casts a dark shadow and she not recording Manon has I think allowed Jaho’s interpretation to be definitive. When we got the tickets, La Farmer and I were rather dreading the fact that five acts including two intervals would add up to four hours at the Garden. We were fully expecting to be at J Sheekey’s well before the curtain call but instead led the applause at the climax of a truly remarkable performance.
There is something magical about the Royal Opera House. It is one of the few places in London where people are universally civilised and intelligent. I always enjoy seeing the real die hard opera buffs en route to their seats (or stands) in the Gods wearing the self-same velvet cloaks and horn-rimmed spectacles as you see in the first scene of The Red Shoes. But I digress. I must admit that the first act of Manon didn’t particularly thrill. There’s all sorts of bits of business with inn keepers and gay ladies before the young Manon arrives to visit her brother en route to a convent.
Terribly difficult for a sophisticated woman such as Jaho to play the giggling girl who falls in love with the Chevalier Des Grieux and runs away with him to Paris. But that’s where she excels in describing Manon’s character development from wide-eyed ingenue to voluptuous goddess: a mercurial woman compelled to make choices that lead her to the life of what was known in Paris as a Grand Horizontale: the courtesans who led fashion, society and titled, wealthy men by the nose.
This production directed by Laurent Pelly has been performed at The Met and La Scala to great acclaim. Pelly also designed the sumptuous costumes that reminded me of nothing so much as portraits of society beauties painted by Sargent and Tissot. Jaho is given the most divine dresses once Manon has cast-off her virtue. I was particularly taken by her Mae Westesque ‘Belle of the 90s’ white costume when she sings the Gavotte smothered in diamonds and surrounded by top-hatted admirers. It was the Gavotte rather than Adieu Notre Petite Table when I think Jaho truly began to soar. The coloratura had the House rising up to embrace her.
This being a Sherwood/La Farmer evening, we are never far from an outbreak of the titters. To set the scene, Manon has abandoned her lover the Chevalier and has been seduced into the life of a courtesan. He meanwhile has chosen to take holy orders. When Manon discovers that the Chevalier is in Paris she hies herself thither to Saint Sulpice to seduce him. At the crescendo of N’Est Ce Plus Ma Main Manon tears open his cassock and he ravishes her. I only had to say The Thorn Birds and we both dissolved.
However, we stayed for all five acts and were rewarded. The scene in a Parisian casino where Manon, clad in a Schiaparelli pink satin gown, temps the Chevalier to gamble so that he can afford to keep her in the manner she’s grown accustomed to was spectacular. It reminded me a little of Dietrich and Jannings in The Blue Angel funnily enough. Ermonela Jaho seemed to channel Wilde’s Salome. She and Matthew Polenzani touched the sublime in this scene where the lovers are accused of cheating at faro; he led away in chains and she disgraced and cast down.
I’ve rarely seen scenic design as clever as that of Chantal Thomas. There is an almost Impressionistic, sketchy technique suggesting the pleasure gardens and casinos of 1880s Paris without going for overwrought realism. This allowed the sumptuously dressed chorus (who were having far too much fun though it probably makes a refreshing change from slaves in the Hebrew Chorus) to provide the colour and detail. A little while ago when I was working on the Savoy Museum my friend Helen organised a tour of the Royal Opera House’s wig and costume department on the rooftops of the building. The creativity in these rooms is phenomenal. It must be a pleasure these days to dress sopranos now they are all as svelte as Callas in her prime.
The final scene of the lovers’ reunion and Manon’s death gives us one of the opera’s most moving arias Tu Pleures. Lord only knows how Jaho and Polenzani could sustain such intensity after five physically demanding acts. Suffice to say, when the curtain came down there was a roar from the audience like a revival meeting. The House is I think one of the most knowledgable audiences and the artists know this. Ermonela Jaho was clearly very moved to have won their approval and adoration. I haven’t enjoyed the Royal Opera as much since Natalie Dessay gave her Fille du Regiment.