I have to be honest. There is probably a reason that this show, rather than Tosca or La traviata, is the one which fell a bit by the wayside in terms of blogging. It just isn't an opera I can ever see myself developing a particularly deep relationship with. But it's very pretty and very enjoyable, and I must have liked it, because I went twice.
Stuart Maunder's production is what it is, lavish and conventional and no more subtle than it needs to be. I'm sure there are greater depths to be explored in Manon, but doing so is sort of an optional extra; the opera is still well suited to a nice straightforward staging with pretty frocks and singers lined up in convenient rows for their ensembles. Such productions, as I think we've established, aren't my favourite thing ever, but in small doses they're pleasant enough. Still, if this one's revived again, the intervals need to be re-thought. At ninety-five minutes, the first half is uncomfortably long, and the single interval throws off even further the opera's already rather dodgy structure.
I thought the show belonged to Julian Gavin's Des Grieux. It was quite extraordinary to hear a voice as large and dramatic as Julian's in a lyrical role like this. Rather than bust Massenet's vocal lines apart at the seams, he allowed them to overflow with warmth and golden sound, neither denying nor excessively flaunting the inherent power of his voice. He developed the character persuasively, too, voice matched perfectly to demeanour as Des Grieux went from shy student, to ardent lover, to tormented priest, to broken man. I was less convinced by Amelia Farrugia as Manon, thought I expect this puts me in a minority. I thought she was wonderful and utterly believable in the early part of the opera, but it seemed to me that at about the point where Manon betrayed Des Grieux, sincerity gave way to superficial melodrama, and the worse life got for Manon, the less I believed in her suffering. Massenet gives Manon something the Abbé Prévost denies her — an inner life — and I didn't think Amelia explored that as fully as she might have. Her singing, however, was pretty stellar throughout, especially in the high, twinkly passages. I do sometimes wish the (considerable) beauty of her voice was spread a bit more evenly, rather than being so dazzlingly focused in the upper range; but then, when you're lapping up those shimmery high notes, it's hard to complain too much.
In the two big supporting roles, we had two of my favourites, José Carbò and Stephen Bennett. Either of these names on a cast list makes me happy, so it was quite an indulgence to have both of them there, and they both acquitted themselves with characteristic panache. José was a charming rogue (he's good at that) as Lescaut and in such good voice that I just wished there was more for him to sing — or at least, that his showy little hymn to profligacy in the Cours-la-Reine could go on much longer. Who needs the Gavotte when you have José? I kid, but only just. Stephen, meanwhile, was a model of gravity and good sense as the Comte des Grieux, his rigid morality softened by the twinkle in his eye and voice. There is just something so inherently stylish about the way Stephen sings, an idiomatic understanding and unforced dignity which I find quite beguiling in every role, however small — even as the Doctor in Traviata, he was a striking presence — and in Manon he was as classy as ever.
Cue quick round up of the Professor and Mary Ann (aka The Rest). First mention must go to Guillot de Morfontaine and his luxuriously cast entourage — Kanen Breen blindingly foppish as very camp rake, with Jacqui Dark (Rosette), Amy Wilkinson (Javotte) and Taryn Fiebig (Poussette) the starry trio on hand to taunt and tease him. Richard Anderson was a rather dashing Monsieur de Brétigny — not at all the crusty old sugar daddy I think I expected — whereas Richard Alexander (who played said sugar daddy in last year's Manon Lescaut) was delightfully rough and unkempt as the innkeeper. Plenty of strong singing and powdered French mischief from the chorus, particularly in the debauchery of the gambling scene. And while at this distance, I fear I can't really say anything hugely meaningful about Emmanuel Plasson's conducting, it certainly struck me as suitably French and quite nicely paced. Syrupy in the way Massenet likes to be but not completely decadent — I wouldn't have minded if it had been, though.
It was a curious thing to see this Manon so soon after Manon Lescaut. While Massenet's opera is in some ways closer to the novel than Puccini's, neither is particularly well constructed — Manon Lescaut lurches about and leaves out vast amounts of plot development, Manon dwells and dwells on the pleasures of love, of poverty, of wealth, of misbehaviour, and then hurriedly tacks on a rather limp death scene (in the wrong country) so the thing can end already. I can't say either convinced me that it was a masterpiece. The Puccini moved me far more deeply than the Massenet, and while that's of course mostly down to Cheryl (oh, how I miss her...), I think, for all its flaws, I do ultimately prefer Manon Lescaut. Right now, though, I think I've probably had enough of Manon (in any incarnation) for a while. I'm pleased we had this Manon — especially on account of its outstanding male cast — but the heroine and I need to take a break. And Harry Joy is calling.